Monday, October 7, 2013

Israel's Bible Belt: Random Thoughts on My Trip to Galilee

1. I'm still not sure what to make of the fact that the heart of the Holy Land (at least from a Christian-tourist perspective), in the heart of Israel, has very little to do with the Jewish faith. As I told an Israeli guy back in Tel Aviv afterwards while recounting my non-religious experience there, imagine Mount Olympus overlooking the Empire State Building in New York City, and Fifth Avenue being best known not as an international shopping mecca but as the spot where the Olympian Gods defeated the Titans.

But getting back to Galilee (and it took about two hours to get there by van), Nazareth was the first place that our 13-person tour group (myself and the guide included) visited on Gray Line's $85 Full Day Biblical Highlight of Galilee from Tel Aviv package. I'd previously known Nazareth mainly as the town where Jesus spent his childhood, so I had no idea that today it's a proper city, a sizable metropolis that, unlike the rest of the country it's in, is predominantly Muslim and Christian, hence the bustling old town streets on the morning of Shabbat.

We only stayed for a couple of hours, long enough to visit a souk and two Catholic Churches, but that was plenty of time for Nazareth to charm me and win me over. I'd love to return and spend an entire day roaming the streets, following the signs (which are all in Hebrew, Arabic, English and, curiously, Italian) on the roads leading up and down its maze of hills. Jesus must have had amazing calf muscles!

The next stops along the tour -- the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River -- are best known as the sites of key moments in the life and times of Jesus Christ, making them, on that level, more or less equally irrelevant to Judaism. That said, one needn't be aligned with any particular faith, or have any at all, to appreciate the breathtaking view of the world's lowest saltwater lake (which is what this "sea" is, technically) as one drives down to it from the hills of Tiberias, 200 meters below sea level, to the very spot where Jesus allegedly walked on water, or, for non-believers, the perfect place to spend an hour gazing out at the water, contemplating the world and our minuscule place in it.

2. The thing that struck me most about the Church of the Annunciation in the the old town of Nazareth was how unlike any of the Catholic churches I've visited in Europe and South America it is, from the stark, minimalist interior design, to the main chapel being one level above the ground floor, to the painting of a Japanese mother and child on the wall by the exit.

For another thing, after months of entering one antique house of the holy after another, including the adjacent Church of St. Joseph, I thought it was by far the most modern-looking Catholic church I'd ever been to. As places of worship go, it's like the equivalent of 20th-century art, or electronica.

"What a great space for a nightclub!" I said to myself as I looked it up and down, from the polished beams overhead to the smooth marble floor under foot. It's been years since I've stepped either foot into Limelight in New York City. I'm not even sure if it still exists. But suddenly, I had the urge to spend a Friday night and Saturday morning dancing by an altar underneath a giant disco ball with Alison Limerick wailing in my ear. "Where love lives. Where love lives..."

3. Rusty took me completely by surprise when he stopped me as I was exiting the synagogue at Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee. A Southern-charming sixtysomething gentleman, he had the gregarious I-shake-hands-and-hold-babies-all-the-time manner of a successful politician, and I have absolutely no idea why he singled me out, but it seems that on this particular day, he wasn't interested in selling himself but rather his place of origin: Charleston, South Carolina.

"Did you know that the travel and leisure magazine named it the No. 1 place in the world to visit?" he asked, obviously proud of his heritage and his hometown's crowning achievement. I'm not sure if that is 100 percent accurate, but I did know that Charleston is recognized as a tourism hot spot, and a friend of mine from college who lives there speaks very highly of it. By the time I walked away from Rusty to find my tour group, I was sold on both the man and the city. If he were running for something, he'd have my vote, and I'm putting Charleston right under the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on my list of places I must visit upon my return to the United States.

4. I could spend all day watching the baptism scenery on the part of the Jordan River where John the Baptist was supposed to have baptized Jesus. For me, though, it's not so much about the religious experience -- or history. I've always been more interested in John the Baptist as a character in my favorite play, Oscar Wilde's Salome ("Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan" remains among my favorite lines in all of literature), than I am in John the Baptist as a Biblical icon.

The most rewarding part of my time spent along the Jordan River (or as I prefer to call it, the River Jordan, not because I have British aspirations but because, well, I prefer the flow of that name) was watching so many people of various nationalities, ethnicities and faiths come together in one spot for a single, singular purpose. Watching them get dunked, for one brief shining moment, I could have sworn that I actually believed, too.
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