Jerusalem has a new light rail system – the rakevet kalah. (Some call it the rakevet klalah, the accursed train.) Take the light rail to the end of the line at Mt. Herzl and you come to an intersection that gives you three distinct choices. You can go to the Herzl Museum and learn of Zionism’s early beginnings, then visit Herzl’s grave and those of many leaders and fighters for Israel. You can walk another street to visit Yad Vashem’s Holocaust memorial, or you can go left and wind your way down the mountainside to Ein Kerem, a small Arab village, now largely Jewish, that fills with chiloniyim, secular Jews looking for a good restaurant and a shop open Shabbat noon. It’s the same Ein Kerem that Hadassah Hospital overlooks from its perch on the hillside.
Loren and I made a thirty minute descent down the mountainside, most of the path a beautiful, broad sidewalk, and some of the way edging along residential streets. We took time to rejoice in the bright red anemones blossoming among other wild flowers, and we stopped to enjoy almond trees, shekedim, in full flower. From a distance, their white or pink blossoms make the trees look as if they have no branches at all, just a blur of colour waving in the wind.
We entered the village with a goal: to visit the Church of St. Jean Baptiste. That’s right, Ein Kerem was the birthplace of John the Baptist, not a Jewish site, to be sure, but one that I felt two Quebecers ought to visit. The street to the church gate is little more than a laneway lined with shops selling everything from Dead Sea face creams and Israeli wine to Christian mementos. Arab shopkeepers stand at the door showing their wares, many doing so with a quiet dignity that cannot be found in the Arab Shuk of Jerusalem’s Old City.
We entered the walled courtyard of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste, his reputed birthplace, to find that its walls were covered with a particular Christian prayer in two dozen languages. A group of pilgrims from Portugal stood before their version, chanting words in a Gregorian mode. Constructed in 1955 over ancient church ruins, the structure contained well-conceived mosaic work, including some ancient ones, but no exceptional paintings. During construction the archeologists found a 2nd Temple period mikveh ritual bath. Who knows? Perhaps that was what led early Christians to link the spot to John the Baptist and his dedication to purification by water.
After a brief visit to the church, we walked again along the shopping path, across the main street, and began to ascend the mountain dominated by Hadassah Hospital and several churches.
First we came upon a combination mosque/Christian site, Mary’s Spring, said to be the site where Mary met Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Then we climbed a magnificent and long staircase of Jerusalem stone to reach the Church of the Visitation. A goodly number of pilgrimage buses were parked at the base of the mountain in the village, and pilgrims, escorted by guides and clergy, were found wending their way upward to the various sites. We, too, visited the site, which Constantine the Great’s mother Helena designated as the place where Zechariah the prophet lived and where Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and family, as well as where Elizabeth hid from Herod’s soldiers behind the stone cover of a cistern still to be seen today.
We two Jews did not feel impelled to stay long. We noted the magnificent Gorny Russian Orthodox monastery with its golden domes and also the Sisters of Sion structure, well-hidden by large walls. Pilgrims lingered on the mountainside, while Loren and I made for the village. We had come to Ein Kerem to rejoice in the flowering of spring, to shop a little, to sight-see, yes, and ultimately to have lunch. The pilgrims had other plans, finally boarding their buses and heading for other points of Christian interest.
In Ein Kerem, that little village now incorporated into Jerusalem’s city limits, you can see clearly that there are two Israels. One is the Jewish State, and that’s the Israel we are visiting. The other is the Holy Land, and that’s the one the Christian pilgrims visit. They don’t go to Hadassah Hospital to see the Chagall Windows or to rejoice in the existence of this huge and incredibly competent medical centre. They don’t visit the Herzl Museum to learn the history of Zionism’s origins, though they usually go to Yad Vashem to understand the Shoah and its meaning. They go to Ein Kerem to -- excuse the pun -- to immerse themselves in their Christian beginnings: John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth.
In many ways, these Christian pilgrims are not seeing Israel. They’re visiting the Holy Land. Israel is a protrusion on the landscape, an intrusion on the true goals of their visit: Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, where he lived; the Galilee, where he preached; Jerusalem, where he died. Even at the Israel Museum, which Loren and I have visited 7 times for its wide-ranging content, the pilgrims see a model of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but few enter the museum itself. Their tour is not greatly about modern Israel, and whether they see the modern nation that’s in front of their eyes, I do not know.
If a person came only to visit a set of ancient sites, as if all the rest did not exist, a week would be plenty, I imagine. That is a pilgrimage, for a pilgrim comes. . .and goes, probably never to return again to the Holy Land.
For us, three months in Jerusalem was not enough. Our sabbatical has been to Israel, from its ancient past to its present problems and hopes as a living nation. It has been about falling more deeply in love with Israel, with Israelis, and with the life of the Jewish people in our old-new land. We hope to return at length, again to immerse ourselves in the greatest Jewish enterprise in 2000 years.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner