The rental car is safely back without a scratch and filled with gas, and the hold on our credit cards is off. So the story can be told. We were SUPPOSED to drive to the main checkpoint leading into Bethlehem, which is located just across the border, in the West Bank.
Before 2000 — before the second intifada and its bombings — you could drive unhindered between the Israel and the West Bank on the edge of Jerusalem. But now there is this wall. And security gates. And you are not supposed to take an Israeli rental car across into the Palestinian territories.
So we set out, eight of us — seven women and a token guy — in two cars equipped with a GPS we promptly named Jezebel (this was, after all, the Holy Land). Jezebel had this sweet Brit accent and this strange habit of telling us to take the second turn when she really meant get into the second lane before turning. Or something. We never did quite figure it out.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You have a sense of adventure.
- You like to learn about other cultures.
- Religion is of importance to you.
- Good for: People who want to see the birthplace, literally, of Christianity.
We turned and U-turned, and after a bit, found what we thought was the right checkpoint. It was cold and windy and rain was starting to fall. The lone Arab guard didn’t speak English. And there was this vegetable truck with two women in head scarves.
We thought the guard told us to continue on down the road. Surely we would find a second gate, a parking lot and our paid guide.
But, no, what we found soon enough was a city. And all the signs were in Arabic. And there were mosques. And LOTS of head scarves.
“Um, guys, I think we’re in Bethlehem,” one of the women said.
A Palestinian Tour Guide, a Jewish Tourist, and the Birthplace of Christianity
After several U-turns and interesting encounters with assorted vehicles, we pulled to a curb, saw a man, rolled down a window and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Quite well,” came the answer.
We explained we were looking for the Church of the Nativity, the very spot where Jesus was born.
“Ah,” the man said, pulling a neck tag from under his shirt. “I am an official Palestinian Ministry of Tourism guide.”
His name was Walid Qurneth. He looked at the two cars with seven women. Eric, our token male, was inside a nearby shop asking for directions.
“Where is the man? Where is the man?” Walid asked plaintively.
Apparently no decisions would be made until the man of our harem approved. When Eric emerged, I think he was close to kissing Walid on the cheek.
And thus started my journey into Christian religious past. The church was just a few blocks away up some of the steepest streets I’ve ever seen, with the day’s winter deluge coursing down the slick sandstone cobblestones like a waterfall.
The church is huge, divided into three churches, actually (Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Roman Catholic). Steep stairs lead to chambers everywhere, but especially to THE spot. As a Jew, it was all amazing to me. Still, I could feel the Bible coming to life.
Away in the Manger
In one corner, in a small alcove that actually looks like a fireplace, it is said Jesus was born. You can lean in and find the metal emblem that marks the center. Then over there in another alcove, Mary kept baby Jesus warm in the manger, and in yet another cove is where they greeted the Wise Men bearing gifts.
I stopped to speak briefly with a Greek Orthodox priest who shares this holy place with so many visitors, speaking softly and looking at the crowds with sad, serious eyes. Hordes of the faithful pressed in, flowing down the stairs in a breathless tidal wave of bodies.
This is the part of the Bible that is not really familiar to me but, slowly, I was beginning to understand just a bit of it: the history, the devotion, the crowds of faithful. People knelt before the holy spots, rubbing them gently with their fingertips, sometimes rubbing a scarf, or even a bottle of drinking water. I asked why and was told it blesses the objects. And of course, the people.
We squeezed with the crowds from chapel to memorial spot to chapel. And suddenly, there was a sound. Music. An evangelical group from Texas singing “Silent Night.” In January, yet. The melody seemed to soak into the very walls. It was weird but also a sacred moment.
And then we were again outside, back on the steep streets with a full inch of flowing water drowning our shoes. And into Walid’s brother’s gift shop.
The Gift Shop at the End of the Road
Of course there was a gift shop.
Walid’s brother had large glasses of sweet sage tea waiting for us. There were shelves of religious objects, some of them incredibly tacky (Jesus ballpoint pens), some breathtakingly beautiful (olive wood bibles). Yes, we dropped a wad.
Walid’s brother, Adel Korna, explained that the checkpoint we accidentally used (one of at least half a dozen between Israel and the West Bank) was actually at Hebron. “You can’t go back that way,” he added. “It’s snowing there now.” Yes, we believed him. It was sleeting down here in the city. We got directions to take us back to the ‘real’ checkpoint, called Rachel’s Crossing, with the real shivering, humorless (no wonder; they were freezing) Israeli guards.
As we prepared to leave, Adel smiled wide. “You are all now my friends. My family. Next time you are here … you have my card … call me and you will eat dinner in my house. A real, proper Arab dinner.”
I have no doubt he meant it. But more to the point, the trip — even such a blundering trip as ours — was a revelation for me on the spirituality of religious devotion.
- Israeli rental cars are not supposed to be driven into the West Bank because they are not covered by insurance there. And traffic anywhere in Israel can be dicey. At the official checkpoint, called Rachel’s Crossing, there is a large parking lot. Most people arrange for a guide from the other side to pick them up in a car or van after they have walked across. If we had found the right gate and our arranged guide, it would have cost us $100 for the eight of us to be driven to the church and guided around it.
- Walid Qurneth is an excellent guide and his brother’s gift shop, Adel Souvenir Store, has a nice assortment of religious souvenirs. For Walid: Contact him through his brother’s store, phone 972-276-4584, email, firstname.lastname@example.org
- For information on Israel: www.goisrael.com