Ladies and gentlemen, I am in Jerusalem. Not Jerusalem in the Finger Lakes region of New York state but Jerusalem in Israel.
I’m here with my wife on what she insists is a vacation but what I’m treating more as a research project. We’re combining the two as best we can, which is not difficult, since so many of the tourist sites are also research sites.
So far we have visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the genuine burial place of Jesus, from which he famously arose, and the Western Wall, which is the remnant of an ancient temple and the most holy place in the world for Jews, even though it’s nothing more than a big old retaining wall. Jews are exceedingly fond of their history, I’m learning, even if much of it is imaginary.
We have yet to visit the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place of Muslims, but that is no great deficiency since Muslims won’t let us inside either of those places anyway, and we can see the outside of them well enough from where we are.
We have also yet to visit the Garden Tomb, which is the other genuine burial place of Jesus, the one recognized by Protestants. We tried, on Sunday, but a sign advised us that it was closed that day. The day on which he allegedly rose from it!
It’s a good thing Protestants weren’t in control back then, or he never would have gotten out. We’re going to try again another day.
The Holy Sepulcher was discovered (or invented) in the 4th century, by the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who won sainthood for her efforts; the Garden Tomb was discovered (or invented) in the 19th century by English Protestants. So I believe the Holy Sepulcher has dibs.
I’ve been educating myself since we’ve been here and have learned that the Muslims’ Dome of the Rock is also important to Jews as the site of the foundation stone, which is where the world began and where Adam and Eve were created. Very few people know about this, and it doesn’t appear in the history books, but I know it’s true because I read it on a sign.
Muslims claim the stone is where the Prophet Muhammad launched himself to heaven on horseback, leaving behind a hoofprint in the rock, but nobody else believes it. I had a desire to see the hoofprint so I could reach my own conclusion, but since I can’t get in I’ll have to suspend that part of my researches.
Every once in a while some Jewish believers attempt to get up on the vast stone platform where the Dome and the mosque are located, so as to build what they call the Third Temple; Muslims pelt them with rocks, Israeli soldiers fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the Muslims, and then everything is as it’s always been in the Holy Land — people of faith at each other’s throats.
In the couple of days that we’ve been here, we have not personally witnessed such goings on, and we’re happy for it. My wife made me promise we would not get shot, and I hate to break a promise.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we tried to find our way through the random arrangement of old walls, passageways, chapels and stairways, all dark and gloomy, without getting trampled by tour groups wearing color-coded ball caps, but it was not easy.
The place is a mess partly because it is controlled not by one denomination but by six — Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and I think Syriac — and in the best Christian tradition these denominations fight like the devil. They can’t even agree on what time to open and close the joint.
A Franciscan friar on the premises confirmed for me what I had read, that the keys are held by a family of Muslims, who open it every morning and close it every night as they see fit, and this arrangement, the only way six Christian denominations can co-exist, has been in effect for centuries. Isn’t that hilarious?
Sometimes the friars, priests and brothers of these various true faiths get to physically brawling, when one or another of them trespasses onto another’s territory, and the Israeli police have to come in and restore order.
We lined up for the privilege of touching the alleged holy tomb, which is enclosed in what resembles a Hopi bread oven, and we did so behind an Israeli police barrier with a bearded Greek priest hollering at us to “Go! Go!”
You have to travel for religious experiences like this. You can’t get them at home.
Guidebooks say there is only one door to the church, but my wife and I, while wandering the neighborhood lost, discovered another one, on a lower level, which led us into the dreary chamber of the Ethiopians, where a brother, looking as forlorn as a human can look, showed us the narrow stone stairway up to the rest of the church.
I’m going to write to the publisher of the guidebook and propose an amendment.
Down at the Western Wall we watched Jews bobbing their heads in prayer, and I observed one wailing most pitifully over his prayer book, as if he had just lost his very children, until he came to an end and quickly composed himself and went off about his business.
I should clarify that I watched the men, and my wife watched the women, since the sexes are divided by a screen — left side for men, right side for ladies.
That’s another thing I’ve noticed about these fervent believers — they have no confidence in their ability to control their sexual urges, at least in the case of Jews and Muslims. We attended Sabbath services at the Great Synagogue, an Orthodox establishment, and my wife had to sit up in the balcony with the other women, out of sight of us presumably slavering men downstairs.
At the Wall, I came upon a group of men with little black boxes tied to their noggins, held in place by black leather thongs that ran down and around their arms, giving them the appearance of some weird kind of S&M cult.
I button-holed one who spoke English and asked him what sect they belonged to, and he said, “We are Jews of the Holy Land.”
I asked why they wore those little boxes on their heads, and he said, “We do what God told Moses to do.”
That was as far as I got with him, though he did advise me that if I could prove my grandmother was a Jew I could join them.
In case you’re wondering, there is actually a mental disorder attached to this place, known as Jerusalem Syndrome, and there is a mental health center that specializes in treating it.
It consists of identifying with biblical characters like John the Baptist — a popular one — and its symptoms include dressing in white robes, keeping oneself obsessively clean (in preparation for the Second Coming), speaking in tongues, and generally carrying on like a lunatic.
About half the people who come down with it were nuts to begin with, but the others were not. Jerusalem tipped them. Average recovery time is five days. Best proven remedy is to get out of town.
The Kfar Shaul mental health center admits some 50 to 100 sufferers a year, most of them Christian evangelicals.
I was going to stop by and see if I could spot any Republican presidential candidates there, getting treatment, but the Rev. John Hagee is in town with a convention of Christians United for Israel, so the place is liable to be busy, and I decided to skip it.