Friday, May 16, 2008

The Old City

The entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem from the new (and wonderful) Mamilla Mall.

I haven't spent a whole lot of time in the Old City year--probably not enough time. It's a busy place, with lots of people, lots of haggling, lots of Jews and Arabs and Christians and Armenians. As beautiful as it is to see, it's also very confusing and easy to get lost in the little side roads that seem to lead you nowhere. It can be more overwhelming than worthwhile at times, especially on days where it's hot or very crowded.

This past Wednesday, our last Israel Seminar ended early, so instead of doing the thousands of things I need to be doing, I decided to go gift shopping in the Old City. My friend Ari knows a guy in the Arab shuk who sells cheap and nice t-shirts, so I wanted to pick up some things before I left. I had every intention of just going to buy some t-shirts and maybe peruse the Arab shuk a tiny bit, and then I would come home and do work. Instead, I ended up spending over 3 hours walking around, talking to store owners in hebrew, spending money and time I don't have, and visiting the Kotel for the last time this year.

The Jaffa Gate entrance, that leads you into the Christian Quarter of the Old City.

The Arab Shuk

In the t-shirt shop, I was treated to Turkish coffee and water (not uncommon when a store owner likes you) by the two brothers who own the shop. One of the brothers, the one who was not making my t-shirts for me, decided he was in love. He hugged me several times, kissed me on the cheek several times, and tried more than once to kiss me on the lips. Finally, I told him "Yesh li chaver!" (I have a boyfriend!) and he pretty much left me alone. He did tell me he was in love with me and that I needed to come back before I left. In America, this situation would be classified as sexual harassment, though here in Israel, it just isn't. There was nothing offensive about what he was doing, and though I was a little uncomfortable, I guess I've come to learn that things like that are just customary here. I'm sure my hardcore feminist friends would disagree with me, but at the very least it made for an interesting visit to the Arab Shuk.

My proudest moment in the Shuk was when I managed to buy a pashmina for 50 shekels (about $14) instead of 120 shekels. I really hate haggling, as I have a guilty conscience and I really don't want to offend anyone by offering too little money for their goods--especially here, because I don't want to be a disrespectful American who tries to take advantage of a struggling Arab salesman. But, I have learned that there is a polite way to haggle and get what you want for not more than you're willing to pay. The trick is to simply say 'thank you' and walk away when he quotes you the price, even if he's lowered for you a time or 2--he will usually call you back into the store with a significantly lower price that HE set, one that is usually fair for both of you. So, after I politely said 'no' to paying 120 sheks for the pashmina, and once again saying 'no' to his offer of 90 sheks and walking away, he called me back and offered 50 sheks, which I was happy to pay. It felt like a very powerful, yet fair way to get what I want for the price I am willing to pay.

After too much fun in the Shuk and surrounding shops, I found my way into the Jewish Quarter. I hung out for a bit, doing a little more shopping and going to visit the Kotel.

Welcome to the Jewish Quarter!

Believe it or not, until Wednesday, I had not prayed at the Kotel all year long. I remember my first visit to the wall when I was here on Birthright that really shaped my opinion and perspective of the wall. Growing up in Jewish America, you hear non-stop that the Western Wall is this amazing piece of Jewish History and spirituality. Upon my first visit in January 2004, I surpringsly walked away from the wall thinking "Really, it's just a wall..." It's just the stones of a retaining wall that protected the 2nd Temple. There's something beautiful about the fact that it's still here, and still belongs to the Jewish people, so historically I think it's a wonderful thing. But I've never felt a strong spiritual connection to the wall and everything it represents for the Jewish people.

There's also the issue of gender inequality at the Wall. In the 1960's, the Ultra-Orthodox community decided to revolt against the new-ish Progressive movement in Israel and seperate the wall into men's and women's sections. In Orthodox Judaism, women are prevented from participating in any of the service leadership, including reading Torah--some communities go as far as to outlaw women's singing or voices within the service (this makes me so angry I can't even elaborate.) In fear of the Progressive Jewish movements that not only allow but encourage participation by women, the Ultra-Orthodox community put a mechitza, a seperating wall, between the men and the women. The balance of space at the wall is about 75% men to 25% women, resulting in an overly crowded space for women that makes it difficult to pray or even get close to the Wall.

I don't consider myself an ultra-feminist by any means, but this isn't fair. And it needs to change. There have been efforts by some communities to pray in a mixed fashion with both men and women at other parts of the wall, which are actually beginning to work, though I think it will be a long time before a women can stand at THE Western wall and legitimately read Torah.

The Western Wall from the plaza--it's hard to see the mechitza from this picture, but it's there.

But anyways, I went to the Kotel and once again, it was just a wall. But I tried to pray anyways, for Jerusalem and Israel and the amazing experience I have had here. My real prayers, the significant ones, will be saved for our last Shabbat service, tonight, when we'll gather as a class for one last t'fillah in a beautiful, progressive environment.

Notes stuck between cracks of the wall-many people place their most important prayers into the cracks of the wall.

My last view of the Kotel Plaza this year

So because I got nothing done on Wednesday, I must leave you to accomplish much of the work I still need to do. I will be home a week from tomorrow, so I am filled with emotion and worry and nervousness as the semester wraps up...but that's another blog for another day (expect one, as soon as I need a break from paper-writing and too much studying.)

Excited to see you all!

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