Thursday, June 6, 2013

Culture Shock in Israel


I step out of the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem with my mother, sister and our tour guide on a hot and sunny Sunday morning in October. My husband and daughter have already beat their retreat, returning to our temporary home to rest. His day to tour will be tomorrow, when the focus shifts to predominantly Jewish sites, and I will stay home with our two year old. I wish it were tomorrow already, that it was my turn in our usual tag-team parenting dance. I am tired and still half dazed from our long trip and the mutual jet lag, which has us keeping each other up at night. I feel off balance, the rough stone walls, chaotically decorated churches split among four denominations and hordes of people speaking dozens of languages constantly reminding me this is not my home. This is not my space. I am a stranger here, and I am not certain I am welcome.

The Muslim call to prayer is resounding through the courtyard, a wailing chant so loud I can’t hear what our tour guide is telling us at that moment about the history of the building. Instead I try to focus on experiencing the moment, soaking in the surreal juxtaposition, listening to the sounds of one Abrahamic religion after viewing the holiest site of another. A few minutes later my religious triad was complete, as we exited the square into another street to find Jewish men dressed in black suits wearing tallit and kippot dancing and singing while they held the Torah aloft. They are celebrating the holiday of Simcha Torah and we make our way slowly past the clapping crowd encircling them.

There are no cars here, only hundreds upon hundreds of pedestrians pressing tightly together. People don’t give you space here; they don’t keep a distance. It is hard to stay with my family and I grip my purse tightly as I walk along. Our tour guide leads us rapidly through the stone streets to the textile and antiquities shop owned by his friend, where we are served mint flavored lemonade as a precursor to engaging in the American religion of shopping. It is clear that this ritual, unlike others, crosses international boundaries, and we are obviously expected to buy something. The owner of the shop shows us around, pointing out special items and explaining their history and their significance. Everything, of course, is expensive. Then he leaves us to browse while he sits with our guide and talks of mutual friends. We find gifts for family and complete our purchases of tablecloths, beads and embroidered wall hangings.

After our obeisance to the lords of commerce we proceed, winding our way through narrow alleys that used to be Roman main streets. We dodge small children walking alone in school uniforms carrying enormous backpacks and other children pushing wheelbarrows piled with boxes to twice the height of the young worker. Young soldiers carry military assault rifles as they walk through the streets, reminding me of my deployed base in Iraq. A canary sings over us as we eat a lunch from a market stall of hummus, pickles, garlic laden rice and chicken. The hummus at least is comfortingly familiar, the rice and the chicken oddly spiced and tangy. Our tour guide leads us along the Via Dolorosa, the path walked by Christ on his way to crucifixion. My mother is focused on devotion and my sister on history as we criss-cross what feels to my aching feet like all of Jerusalem. I am distracted, unfocused, unable to enter the experience.

It is like this throughout our trip, the entire two-week experience. I am slightly tense, on edge, and uncertain. I love to travel and thought I was immune to culture shock, but I am uncomfortable here, in this beautiful Middle Eastern place. I can’t let go enough to step fully into the role of religious pilgrim, as my mother has done, despite my own faith. Nor can I find my stride as a sophisticated secular tourist in step with my sister. They are enthusiastic, excited, peppering our guide with questions and soaking in the details. I wish I were too. I wish I could find my enthusiasm and joy for this incredible trip, years in the planning. I find touches here and there; a fun display of Sukkot at the Israel Museum, a lovely hike in Ein Gedi nature preserve, a fun moment floating in the Dead Sea, a day at the Mediterranean Sea with my daughter, but nothing I can sustain. Perhaps another time, if I have a chance, I will be able to believe I am welcome.