Growing Up

One day when I was in Israel and the war was going on, my friend Sarah told me of a friend she had had in the army. Her friend had said to her once,  “Why am I here? Why am I learning about guns and military operations? I should be learning art, romance, opera, love.”

I turned to Sarah and I said, “I came here because I told myself, ‘Why am I not here? I am wasting my time studying art, romance, opera and love. I should be studying politics, military operations, guns.”

I wanted to understand the world.

But does this mean understanding guns?

Can you really ever understand guns?

I fear I’ve been judging reality and approaching life in a horrifically naive fashion. Because truth be told, people are just overgrown children with guns. There’s no secret that justifies war, ever. 

It’s symptomatic of studying the Holocaust. At a certain point, horrific details begin to become normal because you’ve become accustomed to the descriptions.

But these things are not normal. Not normal for a world that was created by God out of love. Not normal, ever.

Perhaps my existential crisis was brought on by, in addition to having spent the last six hours in the library, a poetry workshop I had the crazy pleasure of attending last week. The workshop, to my unraveling, encouraged word diarrhea, which is never welcome in military situations, nor in–let’s face it–some academic settings I’ve found myself in lately.

The funny thing is, we were specifically instructed not to talk about abstract concepts like war or poverty. Yet of course I did, because I’m slightly sadistic and moody. So, under a list of “Things I Know to Be True,” I wrote this:

4. War is never justified, but it is always justified until someone renames the war as something like “an operation” [which they did when I was in Israel] or “experiment” [like German medical experiments..]. That’s how you know that the person renaming the war is just as scared as the people running away from missiles. I know this because I ran away from missiles last year. They were small and wimpy, but no one appreciates blocks of metal raining from the sky. Maybe the only thing worse than hiding from a rocket in a cement underground is lying on your belly in a moving train with sirens blaring in the background tell you you may not live to see your sister step off the plain in Tel Aviv.

My handwriting had grown messier by this point and I admit my heart was pumping a little bit faster. This was when my instructors said “stop.”

This was why I thought I should understand politics, because maybe I could tell people that war is bad. But surely other people know that too?

They do, yes, they do. I’ll bet both arms the thousands of people afflicted every second by civil war know that it’s bad. It doesn’t take an education or a fancy suit to know right from wrong, but it does take a little bit of courage.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic and extremely selfish. Here I sit, safe at home in suburbia, tucked away from harm with a blanket of freshly fallen snow waiting for me outside. Yet I’m beginning to feel restless again.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

A small river flows beneath a sixth century (?) Greek Orthodox monastery
 in the mountain deep of a desert expanse separating Israel from Jericho in Palestine.


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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