Unwitting pilgrims in an ancient land

When we embarked on our year in Spain, it was always implicit that we would use this opportunity to travel as much as possible around the region. Australia is so far away that it seemed imperative to make the most of our time in the northern hemisphere.

Hence when the Spanish Easter holidays coincided with our close friends’ Pesach holidays in Israel, it was a done deal that we would fly from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other, to visit them. What we didn’t realize was that we would unwittingly find ourselves on a pilgrim’s journey along with half of the Christian pilgrims and the Jewish diaspora of the world.

Even before arriving in Israel you get a sense of the place. Party on the plane!
Even before arriving in Israel you get a sense of the place. Party on the plane complete with rapturous applause upon landing!

As a family with Jewish (me) and Catholic/Lutheran (my husband) heritage, we stumbled naïvely amongst some of the most significant religious sites during one of the most important periods of the religious calendar and as such, we had a crash course in biblical history that I had missed during my hours of non-scripture in the school library. Most importantly though, I learned about what my Jewish ancestors lived through for millennia: slavery, persecution and genocide.

The Seder plate at the centre of Pesach (passover) which commemorates when the Jews escaped slavery under the Pharaohs in Egypt
The Seder plate at the centre of Pesach (Passover) which commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt under the Pharaohs

My family and I lean more towards geography than history (not that the two are mutually exclusive, it’s just how we roll) so it was with great shame when we arrived at Sermon on the Mount at the Sea of Galillee, that our friend had to explain its historical and religious significance to us. Most of you probably know (unlike us heathens) that it is the place where Jesus gave his most important sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…….. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth etc…

Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount, Sea of Galilee
Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount by the Sea of Galillee

The pilgrimage continued when on Good Friday we found ourselves at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem (the place believed to be where Jesus was crucified) surrounded by thousands of Christian pilgrims brandishing wooden replica Christ on the crosses and wearing their religious attire.  Visualize for a moment San Franciscan monks in their robes, Russian Orthodox priests in full regalia and Indian nuns dressed head to toe in white cheesecloth. My kids thought it was one big dress-up party except the mood was somber, not the party vibe associated with dressing up.

Good Friday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Good Friday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Catholic nuns in prayer facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City
Catholic nuns in prayer facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City

That same evening we were invited by a friend to spend Shabbat dinner (Jewish Sabbath) at the house of a religious family in the Jewish quarter of the old city. At sunset, we were taken to the Western Wall (also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall which is the only remnant of the ancient and holy Temple Mount that was repeatedly destroyed by invaders) before climbing the stairs to a palatial house for an exquisite meal at a table set for 35 friends of friends of friends.  What an experience! Debates about Judaism, what Pesach means, peace and the State of Israel as well as each person introducing themselves and being interviewed by the host.  All this while eating and eating until you can eat no more. The dinner ended at 1:30am by which time our children had fallen asleep in their seats and we had to carry them out of the old city.

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The Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall)
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Many different religious Jewish groups gather at the wall but all must heed the call of nature
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Shabbat candles on Friday night
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The sacred Muslim Dome on the Rock built on the site of the Jewish Temple Mount. Could this place get any more complex?
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The table is set for a long and fascinating Shabbat dinner (I could only fit half the table in the pic)
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Women gather on one side of the Kotel to pray

The best words to describe Israel for me are: “Intense, vibrant and deep”. It is place in which people like to talk to others intensely and very personally often without even knowing each other beforehand. The streets are vibrant and chaotic and the place oozes history from every pore while bounding head first into the modern world. While I grappled at moments with the affront to my courteous Australian cultural upbringing, the truth is, I can push in and elbow like the best of them and I love to talk to strangers about deep and meaningful things at any time of the day. And when it comes to haggling and bargaining, “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (reference to a trashy Hollywood/Adam Sandler movie where he plays a rambunctious Israeli). In short, I fitted in well in Israel despite not speaking any Hebrew.

Several people have asked me whether I experienced a spiritual connection to my Jewish heritage while in Israel and at the Kotel (Western Wall).  The truth is I had no spiritual epiphany and I feel no closer to God however I did experience a strong and unexpected cultural bond. Previously I had had little connection to Israel (I am Australian and my parents are from Hungary), and a limited understanding of the years of hardship and persecution Jews have faced for millennia. Having now visited Israel, I realize that its existence means that Jews finally have a place where they feel relatively safe and free. How to make peace though among all the people who also want to live on the land of Israel is the question I wish I could answer. I do hope peace will come to this beautiful region.

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The Dead Sea: the lowest point on Earth at 427 metres below sea level (that’s us in the middle distance)
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Exploring the Wadi Arugot in 40 degree heat
Exploring Ein Gedi desert and the Dead Sea (The lowest point on Earth)
Exploring Ein Gedi desert at Wadi Arugot

As an Australian, having lived most of my life on an enormous island continent with no land borders and the closest neighbouring country 3,000km away, I had a moment of reflection when I found myself in a huge natural bird reserve in the Hula Valley of northern Israel. We were riding bikes at sunset admiring the stunning birdlife while fully aware that Syria was a mere 18kms away to the East and Lebanon only 19kms to the West (that distance would be considered part of the midway suburbs of Sydney!). Knowing that conflict, death and starvation were occurring just ‘over there’ was completely surreal and unnerving. Here we were taking a leisurely bike ride through a bird sanctuary in complete safety. Such are the contradictions and fragility of the region.  But I digress as my intention is not to convey politics of the region other than to acknowledge the tension and suffering that is occurring.

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Riding through the Hula Valley with the Golan Heights in view
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More Hula Valley and Golan Heights
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The stunning Hula bird sanctuary

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Contrary to the media headlines of fighting and tension with its neighbours, Israel felt like one of the safest destinations I have visited. For such a small country, it has an enormous diversity of natural, historical and religious wonders in a mild climate. Israel is also all about food. If you are vegetarian, Israel is the place to be with more hummus, falafels, eggplant, tomatoes, eggs, cheese and kneidl than you could ever imagine. Not to mention the vast variety of salads that are a meal in themselves.

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I had no idea there were so many flavours of halva. Our favourites were coffee and pistachio
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So many vegetables and…gefilte fish of course
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HUMMUS!!
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Our dear friend the pomegranate which in Spanish is “Granada” where we live
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Pesach sweets at the market in Jerusalem

I hope others will venture forth and visit Israel whether you are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, Taoist, Muslim or other. Israel is a wonderful and contradictory place that is more than the conflict and fundamentalist religion portrayed in the media. If you do go one day I may just see you there as I hope to return many times in my life.

Until next time!

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3 thoughts on “Unwitting pilgrims in an ancient land

  1. so glad you had such a positive experience! made me this wonderful land and all it’s diversity and richness. x

    1. Thanks Helen! You are my longest standing blog supporter and I really appreciate your kind words. I also enjoy your Australian escapades and you made realize I have spent more time exploring other countries than I have exploring my own land. There is so much to discover in Australia.

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