words + photos by Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde
This is a story about two walls. They are both in Israel. One is holy; the other I found to be horrible. In the short span of 24 hours I had an intimate experience with each of these walls.
The horrible wall is grey, massive and foreboding. It snakes over the hills and valleys, reminiscent of many photos I’ve seen of the Great Wall of China. But this is not a “great” wall. Its purpose is the same, however: to keep others out, to make a separation barrier between us and them. To enter Bethlehem we had to pass through the wall by first entering a large concrete building. A colorful sign outside said “Peace Be With You” in English, Hebrew and Arabic and was signed by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. I didn’t really feel like a welcomed tourist as we wound our way through chutes, past large turnstiles with lights that said “green” for “go” and “red” for “stop.” A flash of our American passports and we were waved on. We exited through a simple doorway to the other side of the wall, to a different world.
The wall towered above us, probably 20 feet. No longer just grey, the wall was covered with graffiti. The graffiti wasn’t just words, but artful angry pictures, one of a lion devouring what appeared to be a white dove with the English words “Stop the Wall” and “hypocrisy.” Instead of the field of ancient olive trees we’d seen on the other side of the wall, we were right in the midst of a neighborhood. A woman, her head covered, called to her daughter below from the balcony of her house just 40 feet or so from the wall. Children played in the street. We spent time with friends of our son Josh, Palestinians who work for peace but who are trapped on the island that is Bethlehem. We had coffee in Josh’s friend’s home where his mother served us cookies and proudly picked mint and lemon balm from her rooftop garden so we could savor the scent.
Josh’s friends drove us back to the checkpoint about 9:30 that evening. The wall seemed even more foreboding in the dark. As we approached, the huge sliding concrete gate that allows car traffic to pass closed in front of us. For a few moments I felt trapped, caught on the “wrong” side of the wall. Josh had been here a couple of nights before. “No need to worry,” he said. So I didn’t… yet, but I thought about it. I could easily have worried. An elderly Palestinian woman toddled by with a bundle on her head. She told us to call out, which we did, but our cries seemed so feeble against the massive barricade. Slowly the huge gate slid open enough for us to slip through, and we headed for the gauntlet of chutes and turnstiles. We waved our passports again and waited for the red light to turn green. It seemed like minutes, but there were unseen eyes watching us, and they let us pass.
The next evening we dressed for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and went into the Old City for our experience with the holy wall. The tourists had all gone home by the time we entered the gate to the excavated ruins at the southwest end of the Western Wall. We were there for Shabbat services with the members of the board of the rabbinical college and its students who were studying in Israel, which included our son and daughter-in-law. We walked among the massive blocks of Jerusalem stone, the color of a latte and full of our history. We were walking on the street that King Herod built more than 2000 years ago. We sat on the ancient stones to chant the same prayers that our people have chanted for thousands of years. In front of me was Robinson’s Arch, a remnant of the glory days of the Temple. The sky was clear with just a few streaky clouds in the light of early evening. As we sang together, I watched the swallows swoop back and forth through the air. I noted the green fluorescent lights of the Al-Aksa Mosque minaret high above the Wall, silent, glowing, but not menacing. I let my eyes wander over the ancient stones of the wall and the tufts of grass that had taken hold in the sacred spaces. I felt something deeply spiritual while I sat there. Like an echo of our service, the chanting from the worshippers at the Wailing Wall drifted over to us and the prayers all merged as one. This indeed is a holy wall and a holy place.
Two walls, 24 hours, two very different experiences. I did not find Israel an easy place to travel to, like Japan or Thailand had been. I’m too connected to it. There is so much promise there and so much disappointment, so much that is holy and so much that I found horrible. I have no answers, only questions, disappointments and hopes. All I can do is pray for peace, soon, and in my lifetime.
Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde tries to be gone - off exploring - for nearly 6 months per year. Retirement has given her the opportunity to travel to many places with her husband of almost 42 years. She loves to write about her experiences as she travels through life.