Sunday, January 18, 2009

Westside Hip Hop

Imagine a plaza packed with hundreds of Orthodox Jews. Men are dressed in black and white, some have Indiana Jones type hats and long slick suit coats, others wear big circular furry Russian style hats and long black robes. Single locks of curled hair bounce up and down in place of sideburns. Everyone is davening—moving back and forth, rolling from heel to toe, toe to heel as an outward expression of an intense inward meditation.

The chanting, davening men remind me of the loose kernels of grain that shake their way towards the edge of mom’s wheat grinder. Everyone faces a wall towering 65 feet up and built of ancient stones weighing 500 tons. It is The Western Wall (the original fortifying wall from the temple during Christ’s time—you know, the place where Christ got all mad; the story we refer to in justifying when we get mad).

Now imagine that in the middle of this pulsing wave of black and white stands a lurpy white guy in jeans, t-shirt, and a blue baseball cap. That’s me. I wedge a folded piece of paper into one of the wall’s crevices. They say that a prayer at the Western Wall is worth a thousand regular prayers.

The party begins at sundown (the beginning of Sabbath). Have you ever seen a Jew get down? Of course you haven’t—but trust me, they certainly do. Small circles formed on the outskirts of the platform. Chris (another student) and I immediately joined the most intense circle. We spent the next 45 minutes dancing around and around in circles with our arms linked over shoulders, kicking our legs, singing Hebrew songs at the top of our lungs, and embracing Jewish strangers with big smiles. At one point I was in the middle of the circle doing my version of Jewish break dance moves; at another point I had hoisted Chris on my shoulders and jumped up and down linked with 3 other shoulder riders. I’ve never felt so much brotherly joy, so much union.

Can a place like this be sacred, even though it lacks priesthood and pure truth? This place was and is sacred because the people and their attitude make it so. There had always been a wall between me and the Jewish people. Orthodox Jews were funny Amish looking people that avoided eye contact. But that night I stood on their side of the wall...looking eastward as brothers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I said "Olive Juice" not "I love you"

Here's one of the apostles who fell asleep. Actually it's a bum--the peaceful Orson Hyde park becomes a refuge for them during the night.

Three important Jerusalem landmarks: the Dome of the Rock, Olive Trees, and my blue shoes .

I listened to Stephen, another student, as he began to bear testimony of the Savior’s Atonement. The nine of us were perched on the weedy rocks of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. We had just finished singing Redeemer of Israel when Stephen began to share some thoughts on the symbolism of the olive press. As he spoke, I fiddled with an olive between my fingers. I split its leathery skin and watched the purple juice squeeze out, dying my fingers. We sang How Great Thou Art and spread out individually across the mount. I thought about the purple stains on my hands. The sky was clear, the sun enveloped me in warmth, and the soft sounds of traffic blended with the chatter of birds. I closed my eyes.

A half hour later we regrouped and entered the Church of All Nations, where the Garden of Gethsemane is said to be. Seven Olive Trees remain in place from the time of Christ. The branches of the Olive Tree seem to extend all the way to the ground, wrapping around each other to form a gnarly trunk. Jerusalem’s landscape has drastically changed since the time of Christ, but these trees have seen it all. As I type, my fingers remained stained scarlet from the olive. I hope to have them clean before I leave Jerusalem.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Week One, part one. First blog post of my life.

Shalom from the Holy Land! It’s been a week since I first entered the barren yet fertile hills of Jerusalem. My initial description upon seeing Jerusalem would compose of rocky hills, dusty roads, treeless landscapes, stony buildings, empty skylines, and deserty air. But in just a week I’m awed by the richness of history, the thickness of religion, the numerous shades of brown, and a diverse people that all seem to represent generations of time.

The Jerusalem Center is incredible. Church services are held on Saturday (the real Sabbath) and everyone would agree that there is not a better sacrament room than here at the Jerusalem Center. The magnificent windows that dominate the sacrament room's back wall allow for a spectacular and often distracting view of the Old City. In fact, most of the center’s western walls are huge windows that make it so 90% of the center, including each student dormitory, has a view of the Old City. The Dome of the Rock’s dole glare is now as familiar as the Wasatch Mountains back home, and just as orientating.

My first reminder that I was in a new world (or old world?) came at 4:30 in the morning on my first night. I was sound asleep (I had been awake for 36 straight hours) when the Muslim call to prayer penetrated through my room with a soft, eery chant. There are large speakers situated on towers throughout the Palestinian area from which the prayer-chants glare five times a day. That was the first night, now the chants are as familiar as “Come Come Ye Saints” on campus from BYU’s bell tower.

There’s nothing like the Old City. Upon entering the towering walls, I am instantly overcome by my senses. Each corner brings a new smell, sometimes rotten sometimes pleasant; each shop keeper yells out to grab my attention, offering a special deal for “tha Mormons”; tightly packed shops are adorned with trinkets, olive wood carvings, jewelry, pictures, clothing (from Nike to Jesus-sandals), nuts and sweets—causing my eyes to jet back and forth, up and down, weary of tripping over the uneven ground; breaks involve tastes of foreign, bitter candy and delicious falafels; my hands extend to touch hanging bags, low ceilings, smooth stony walls, and the rough grainy hands of shopowners.

A 15 year old Palestinian boy named Peter quickly introduced himself to me outside one of the shops. He liked that I was big and tall, and even more that I was with 5 American girls. He stuck by my side for the next 3 hours, asking me questions like “What do you like to do? Do you drink? Why does Bush send weapons to Israel so they can kill us?” He showed us how to get around, he translated for us, and soon followed us home. He wanted to come into the Center so that he could show me the top of his roof which was visible from the center. But visitors aren’t allowed. I think he's used to that.