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Journeys of Faith

April 04, 1999|ALAN BEHR | Alan Behr is a lawyer and writer in New York

JERUSALEM — It's the first time in Israel for my wife, Julie, and me. I'm Jewish; she's Christian. We arrive in Jerusalem as yet another peace accord is being reached--in faraway Maryland.

We joke about tight security but suffer no greater calamity than Julie's discovery, at the airport, that she has left behind the key to her luggage lock. A customs agent produces wire cutters the size of hedge clippers, the lock snaps and we are off to our hotel in what used to be Arab East Jerusalem. It's the American Colony, a former palace where a pasha once lived with his four wives.

The Old City is a 10-minute walk away. It is enclosed by crenelated walls of the cream-colored indigenous stone that, required by law for facades throughout the modern districts beyond the walls, imparts both uniformity and elegance. We enter through the fortress-like Damascus Gate, which leads downhill into the frenetic Muslim Quarter.

From there, we can walk the length of the Old City in less than 15 minutes--even allowing for time to dodge the sales patter of Arab tchotchke hawkers lining streets barely wide enough for the handcarts and small tractors that lug in the goods. Old men smoke hookahs. Market stalls brim with spices, nuts, videotapes and souvenirs. Everything and everyone sheds too much litter. It's all fascinating to watch, but we buy nothing.

Israeli soldiers in bulletproof vests troop by us. Each man carries at the ready an M-16 with an extra ammunition clip held in place with electrical tape, the exposed cartridges shining silver and gold.

We pass through a metal detector and are at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall for the continuous chanting of Hebrew prayer there. I'd thought it was the wall of the Second Temple, destroyed in AD 70 during the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. But archeologists say it's a retaining wall. If the temple wall exists in any form, it is entombed somewhere under the Temple Mount.

Earnest men are reading from prayer books, kissing the wall and placing written supplications inside crevices between its stones. I try to find here a link to my faith, but it doesn't work. The sun is strong, I don't know the language, and I ask myself if I've really come to the western extreme of Asia to commune with a retaining wall.

I return to Julie. She is offended that the women's prayer area is a third the size of the men's and that the men have appropriated the wall's capacious theological library all to themselves.

So we give up the wall for a stroll through the adjacent Jewish Quarter. Art galleries. Finely displayed archeological sites. Streets cleaner than our living room. Hasidic boys romping with a rubber ball. Mothers pushing strollers around the main square. Someone is playing a Pink Floyd album. The Damascus Gate seems a world away.

We double back to Temple Mount, Haram al Sharif in Arabic. Here stands the Dome of the Rock, the 7th century Islamic sanctuary that, with its gilded dome and tile-clad walls, is the signature building of Jerusalem. Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven from the rock it encloses.

Julie and I take turns guarding our cameras (which are not permitted within) and walking shoeless through the carpeted interior, admiring the shimmering mosaics. It's quite beautiful, but we are guests, and at 2 o'clock nonbelievers must vacate Temple Mount for prayers to begin. The Dome of the Rock is available to us only as a work of art; its religious resonance unfortunately remains a mystery.

The next day I try the Western Wall again. Inside the library I come upon an erudite guide named Isaac Tucker leading a tour of several men--Americans, a Swede, an Austrian. Tucker is a communist, and so he polls the small group on whether we may join the rest of their tour for nothing.

Tucker brings us to the Via Dolorosa, which Christians venerate as the route walked by Jesus on his way to crucifixion. Julie has come to Jerusalem just to take this walk, known as the Way of the Cross. Here is the place where Simon of Cyrene helped carry the cross. And here is where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus. Julie is moved by it all.

At the end, we reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A group of Brazilians, led by a bearded man in sandals and a brown pilgrim's robe, listens through earphones as he reads from a sacred text. A chapel contains Ethiopian monks deep in prayer. Then we enter the center of the shrine. Black-robed Armenian men carry candles in twin solemn lines, taking turns kissing the slab representing the place where the body of Jesus was anointed. Upstairs, Catholic nuns from Italy are crowding the spot where the Savior was crucified, and they duck one by one under the altar to touch the rock of Calvary. The Greek Orthodox have temporarily commandeered the tomb of Jesus on the other side of the building while another pack of pilgrims waits its turn. The air is so thick with incense that my eyes sting.

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