Off-Topic: I’m Going to Be Published!!

A while ago I submitted a short piece to the Philadelphia Inquirer about spending Christmas in Bethlehem. I realize it’s a bit preemptive to announce this, because I haven’t submitted the release forms yet but I’m so excited, I can’t wait.  I am going to be a published author! Jo March would be so proud 🙂

Click here to read my original, much longer post from two years ago. It’s funny how one’s story-telling changes over time. I remember writing this for the first time, the event still felt so new and precious. It still is precious, but it’s imprinted itself on psyche a little bit more now.

Note: I won’t publish the new piece on here until three days after it comes out in the Inquirer. I have a lot to learn about free lancing and contracts. If you live in the Philly area, be on the lookout for my article in December!



Not A Day Goes By That I Don’t Think of Be’er Sheva, Israel

        I read the news much more now than I did a year and three days ago, when I said farewell to John F Kennedy Airport and the Western Hemisphere and took off, unwittingly, to Asia: the Middle-East, to be technical, Israel, to be precise, Be’er Sheva, this random little desert city, to be exact. Despite the constant barrage of news reports about Israeli-United States relations, Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and the United Nations that I read daily, as I sit here cozily in my bed, on a lazy, rainy and very wet Sunday afternoon in lower Bucks County (deer country), Pennsylvania, I am so painfully reminded that this special little place that I called home is so, so, so very, incredibly far, far away.
To comfort myself, I look up and around my bedroom so as to feel connected to something. I begin to take inventory of my surroundings, and my eyes fall first upon the stack of books on my bed-side table. Books make me inexplicably happy. I love the shapes, sizes, and colors of books, from the very small and flimsy to the grandiose, heavy and sincere. Some I purchased abroad or at used book sales; some were gifts; some are on (very long) loan. I love the naked spines of my journals, which collect all my crazy thoughts, and the sparsely decorated historiographies and commentaries from Saints and sinners alike.
As my eyes feast on this variable cornucopia of information, I spy a small trinket, a pearl among the diamonds–a small, glass, hand painted bottle from Bratislava, which once contained a sample of Slovakian honey meade (travel size!). Now my eyes begin to wander, scanning past the sea of blue wall, to the double-pained window. A small assortment of jewelry, trinkets, and photographs rest there, along with an ill-crafted flute purchased in Bethlehem, on the off chance that I might have found some sheep that needed herding. Alas, I did not.
Below this sill sit my instruments: a large djembe perched on top of a foraged wooden stool and an old acoustic, three quarter size guitar. Suddenly, the term “traveling minstrel” begins to sound like a serious and viable occupation. But African drums are extremely cumbersome.
Above and to the right of the sill hang a few foraged and gifted pictures, not of people, but of wine bottles, sunflowers, inspirational quotes and a portion of Van Gough’s Starry Nights, repainted into a neat little four by four pun: “Van-Go,” and a Volkswagon beetle in the foreground.
My eyes turn again to the closet door, filled so deep with memories that I hesitate to unravel the fathoms just now. I think of the drawers of one cabinet, in particular; the bottom, being the deeper of the two, contains my old maps, travel guides, notebooks, ticket stubs, and Hebrew language learning assignments. Every map I gathered from every hostel I slept in or museum or mountain I visited I kept: from Eilat to Jerusalem to Budapest, Prague, Vienna, and Slovakia, and from Ein Gedi to Masada and Old Jaffa Hostel. Maps, like books, are precious jewels to me, founts of invaluable and unique information. On them I marked and circled all the sites I loved, the restaurants that served good beer or dessert, the hostels with the friendliest staff, the nearest bus terminal and number.
I am there now, at the bus terminal in Bratislava, sipping a Pilsner inside the station pub, which itself was converted from an out-of-use street car. Then I jump to the porch outside the Ein Gedi hostel, perched with free café (instant, in that red and black packet, and milk from a pouch!), watching the full moon rise over the Dead Sea, Jordan in the background. (As close as I was and as many times as I saw the cities and mountains of Jordan, I never actually crossed the border, despite Petra being a huge tourist destination. I have to go back!!) In my mind I wake up and stretch to greet the great dense, salty sea, then climb, high, higher still up the mountain to the highest legally allowed point in forty degree centigrade heat, then down, deep down into Dodom’s cave and waterfall. Oh, the magic of the desert!!!
My heart longs again for those secret places in the land, those deep mysteries that are so fixed, ancient and overwhelming. I come back to my room, and my eyes fall upon my favorite poem, framed and mounted above my chest of drawers, and I begin to read:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

     I think again of the silent and the chaotic in far away lands. I think of the silent and chaotic demons that test us here in my home country, indeed in my very heart and soul. Tests, challenges, other points of view–as cliche as it sounds, I found myself through living day in day out in Be’er Sheva, getting to sleep each night and waking up with the hot desert sun on my face. I found something I had been looking for since I was a little girl: the confidence and serenity to feel my feet fixed firmly on the ground, yet the faith to throw caution to the wind and let these same feet fly out from under me, over a rock into water or down into a cave. I found the truth–that the world is not such a nice place all the time, and that your life will never be what you want it to be if you put your store in changing times that make headlines, sell newspapers, and send people time and again to war. I think this is why so many pilgrims come to Jerusalem, why so many religious faithful live in Jerusalem, and why that city is and has been and will probably always be the hottest place on Earth:  they know, they understand that the ebbing tide of change only rushes over what is firmly rooted into time and space: God and his plan for us.
I have no answers for peace in the world, but I will forever strive, and may we all work for this:

     In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

Christmas in Bethlehem

My laundry is still in the washing machine, so I can’t take a shower, and even if I did, I would have no clean, dry clothes with which to dress so that I could leave the house and go work on a paper…

SO, I will blog! It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I just moved out of the dorms yesterday (woooohoooo! They were not nice.) and am staying at a friend’s apartment in a different neighborhood close to campus (she’s away in Turkey. Cool, huh?!) For the FIRST time since I’ve been in Israel, I woke up this morning with the very real sensation that I am living in another country. I look out of the bedroom window and I see uniform concrete buildings in the background; smaller, flat roofed concrete houses are in the foreground along with some blue construction tarps, a few small cars, garbage dumps in the parking lot, a few palm trees and one giant tree, whose variety escapes me. There’s also a few electrical towers, TONS of sand, and a big, big, blue sky enveloping everything.  This, my friends, is Be’er Sheva in a nutshell. And it’s been my home for almost half a year now.

There’s no way I can write a blog post about “my time in Israel”; it’s way too dense for that. Instead, I want to share my Christmas experience, which I believe was the best Christmas I’ve had. And it’s strange, because this is the first Christmas I spent away from my family. You would think it would be extremely difficult. But being in the Holy Land helped, as did sharing my Christmas with my friends. I’ll recap:

I decided to go to Jerusalem. This wasn’t as hyped up as it sounds. I think Jerusalem gets really crowded on Easter (obviously) but it was pretty empty on Monday afternoon, December 24, when I arrived via bus. First thing I did was go to the Old City with my friend Kurt, to see if we could get tickets to a Christmas service that night at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Did I mention that the service was in German?

This was the first interesting thing I did. I had originally planned to attend a “unitarian” service of sorts at some big church somewhere near the Old City, because it had the subtitle “multilingual,” which to me equaled English! No Orthodox services were held on the 25th, because every Orthodox church in Israel is Old Calendar, so there would be no “Thy Nativity, Oh Christ our God…” for me. BUT wait until I tell you the rest.

Kurt and I weren’t sure if we would be let into Church of the Redeemer. They had stopped giving tickets and we were told that if we came back in a few hours we might be able to find some standing room in the back. Okay, no harm done. We both wanted to be at  service. Kurt told me that in Germany he sometimes goes to four services on Christmas day, just to hear the carols. Cool, huh?

So, we had a few hours to spare in Jerusalem. What does one do in the Old City for a few hours? Pray and shop and go up on the roofs of old buildings. Seriously. We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (erected by Sts. Constantine and Helen in the 300s) and–it was so quiet! The last time I had been to the Church, it was Saturday, in the middle of the day, and it was miserably crowded. But because it was the evening, and on a Monday, there was scarcely anyone inside. So what did I do? I walked quickly toward the tomb to go inside and venerate the stone. I made it, but not before an angry monk started shouting at me to keep moving. Needless to say it was not the spiritual experience one expects when venerating such sacred objects, but I knew that, because last time at the Church I felt similarly…like a stuffed sardine waiting to be healed! But then when I feel like this I always think of Zachaeus and how he climbed a tree just to see Jesus above the crowds. Where’s a good, sturdy tree when you need one?

Anyway, after a bit of shopping (that’s another perk of not being home for Christmas–you have so much more time to buy presents!) we ended up at a bar with some friends, toasting on Christmas Eve. This was also strange for me. I’m used to fasting and (trying to) nap on Christmas Eve…but we gathered at a table around an outdoor heater, I drank hot mulled wine (!!!) and somehow, it felt good.

After this, Kurt and I went back to the Church to see about getting into the service. Did I mention that Kurt is German? He totally played the “we’re both from the same country” card and got us inside, but there were plenty of open pews even after the service started.

Creche Scene in the Lutheran Church of The Redeemer, Jerusalem

About the service: the program was in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic. This was singularly incredible. From the entrance to the building, we descended a set of stairs, passed an open courtyard, and crossed through a doorway into a massive white chapel with high vaulted ceilings, dimly lit and incredibly beautiful. Candles lined the rows of pews, a Christmas tree was set up on stage, and a beautiful creche scene was off to the side, pictured at left (it’s blurry, I apologize..)

Then the service began with an angelic choir singing very familiar Christmas carols! The choir and congregation sang in German, but I happily joined in in English. At one point during one carol, we ALL sang the same thing: Glooooooooooooria! In Excelcius Deo.
See, not only did I learn Hebrew, but I speak German now too 🙂

It was a beautiful service; the shortest Christmas service I had ever been to, and there was a lot of sitting, but it was lovely and restful. In retrospect, I’m glad we sat for so long, because here’s what we did next:

Stopping to sing a (German) Christmas carol en route to Bethlehem

Ever wondered how long it takes one to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? No? That’s okay, I’ll tell you anyway: two and a half hours, plus stops for singing.

Yep! Me, Kurt, Krystoff, and Paul joined a group of about 100 from the service on a midnight walk to the place of His birth…I really can’t believe this. I will try to describe the experience without sounding like a Hallmark card or the 700 club, but please forgive me if I cheese out a bit….

It was cold and the walk was long. I felt neither of these sensations. I was warm and giddy. Really giddy. It was CHRISTMAS! I had never felt so excited in my whole life. Everything about this day felt special, unlike all the rest of the days, which it is.

Stuck in the security pass crossing Jerusalem into Bethlehem.

The walk itself is not a beautiful one, and we were honked at several times by onlookers thinking all sorts of crazy things (I was surprised how used to this I felt…I remembered the Boston days of traipsing through the street at 2 am with giant candles…thanks Mama and Papa for raising me crazy, it came in handy.)

Our  walk continued into Manger Square, where everything was warm and fuzzy.
 Manger Square, Bethlehem.

 Manger Square, Bethlehem
Venerating the place where Christ was born.

The best is till yet to come, though I apologize that this post is turning out to be so long. We went into the Church of the Nativity, mostly to get warm, but ended up staying there for quiet some time (it was about 3 am at this point…). I walked down into the Grotto where the star is placed over the spot of his birth. It looks like this, pictured at left.

When I climbed down into the grotto, I was astonished (though thinking back on it, it makes sense) to see SO many people down there, even at 3 am! There was a Catholic service being conducted, and people were gathered around this humble little star, kneeling and praying. I was in awe. I couldn’t really move and just stared at this star, picturing a tiny little baby curled up and sleeping inside. What Kings and Shepherds felt that day, here I was  standing in their footprints.

It was surreal. Remembering it now, I feel very funny inside…that’s all I can say. I probably shouldn’t try and describe it because I can’t.

But needless to say, this was the best Christmas of my life. No family, no presents, no warm Christmas morning, but WHAT a day I had!

Wishing you all a peaceful and blessed 2013.

With love,
Melanie 🙂

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