Holy Holy Land, Batman!

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when we pulled onto the open Israeli highway beyond the border crossing we’d just successfully negotiated. I’d heard countless stories about the difficulty of crossing into Israel, regardless of one’s nationality, so I came prepared to be tased, tripped, or pimp-slapped. I didn’t know what to expect. I was, however, prepared to throw punches – even at the risk of being hurled to my death from the top of Masada – if they tried to tase Savannah or pimp-slap my mom, my two travel companions. Actually, it’s kind of funny to think of my mom getting pimp-slapped.

Ahem.

In spite of my fears, I was very pleasantly surprised by the joviality and helpfulness the Israeli border officers displayed. They patiently guided us around the confusing arrivals/departures area, and they didn’t even shoot at us when we accidentally drove past the customs building, thinking the guard was waving us through, when she was really just adjusting her yarmulke. The icing on the cake was when the guy at the currency exchange desk passed three balls of falafel to us along with our shekels, free of charge (the falafel, not the shekels).

Driving into Jerusalem through the Mt. Scopus tunnel was like meeting a celebrity: you know they exist, but you kind of can’t believe they’re real when you see them in person. Having studied the Middle East in some depth as an undergraduate, and having taken several classes dealing specifically with Jerusalem, my first glimpse of the old city and the gleaming Dome of the Rock was special. So special, in fact, that I almost drove into the guardrail as I craned my neck for a better view, which would have significantly decreased the magic of the moment.

Later that day we found ourselves at the Wailing Wall, one of Jewry’s most holy sites. I cautiously made my way down to the praying section, hoping to take a few pictures but slightly uncomfortable about photographing guys praying. After standing around for several minutes, trying to look inquisitive and insightful, I saw a young Jewish college student unabashedly clicking away with his telephoto lens, so I figured, well, when in Jerusalem, do as the Jews do, so I took a few pictures. No sooner had I done so when an old bearded fellow in a top hat approached me.

“Are you American?” he asked.

“Um, yes,” I admitted, not quick enough to lie.

“Are you Jewish?” he continued.

“Um, no,” I admitted, quick enough to realize I had no yarmulke, phylacteries, beard, or Talmud and would therefore be pretty easy to detect as a fraud if I lied.

“Oh,” he said, and wandered off. I kind of felt like I’d just had a crucial pop quiz, and I wasn’t sure if I’d passed or failed. Was I going to hell? I made a mental note to remember this exchange in case it came up in my interview with Saint Peter at the pearly gates. If it does, and if I fail the interview, I’m going to knock over a lamp on my way out.

The next day the weather turned sour for our visit to the Galilee region. An angry wind whipping in from the east churned the little Sea of Galilee into a frothy, foamy maelstrom. As I watched steely waves smash against the rocky shoreline and steadied myself against the biting wind and rain, I wondered if this is what the biblical authors meant when they described the weather there in that valley as “contrary.” We opted to forgo the boat ride on the sea that we’d hoped for. It would’ve taken a hefty boat to stay upright in the lake’s watery tumult, and I was unsure as to my ability to walk on water if necessary, so we visited Capernaum (it costs less to get in that it does to use the freaking john) and the Mount of Beatitudes instead. Mom exulted in the well-stocked gift shop and I enjoyed the relatively tranquil setting on the mount.

The sun remerged the following day as we left behind Israel’s smooth, well-organized system of roads – where everybody stays in their own lane – and returned to home-sweet-Jordan. When we pulled away from the Jordanian border crossing, swerved to avoid a couple of sheep and their robed shepherds, and illegally passed a small dirty truck groaning along at 25 mph under the weight of dozens of boxes of tomatoes, I settled back in the driver’s seat, smiled, and felt glad to be home.