After unpacking a bit at Fred and Gloria’s house, we decided to go out for the evening. This was a bit of a stretch for us since we were still mostly on U.S. time, but we decided to give it a shot. We were going to go to a concert at the Lutheran church in Bethlehem followed by dinner.
Dinner was great; the concert was a bust (which was probably for the best).
We packed into the car: Fred, Gloria, Jennifer, me, and also Esther, a friend of Fred and Gloria’s who is a student in Beersheba – she’s unexpectedly staying with Fred and Gloria because Beersheba is within rocket range of Gaza, so her classes are canceled. We drove through the hustle of Jerusalem, skimming the walls of the Old City and passing between historic buildings, dirty shops, Christian monasteries, and brand new (illegal?) Jewish settlements. Sometimes all those facets of Jerusalem were visible within a block, and we’re going to explore Jerusalem much more this week.
But the goal for the night was to go Bethlehem. Obviously, Bethlehem is known in the West mostly as the place of Jesus’ birth, but here it’s a Palestinian-controlled near-suburb of Jerusalem that brings in a lot of tourist dollars despite the need to go through checkpoints to get there and the crazy maze of security walls separating it from the Jewish-controlled areas. Fred and Gloria said that some tour guides claim that they can’t go to Bethlehem because it’s unsafe, but really it’s a safe city and the guides can’t go there because the Israeli government wants to suppress the Palestinian economy.
Either way, we were and felt perfectly safe.
Our intention was to go to a concert at a church at which Fred and Gloria worked in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, the concert was canceled, and we didn’t find that out until we got there (I don’t know if the cancellation was related to the Gaza crisis). We made use of the freed-up time to explore a local shop (to replace something we forgot to pack) and to walk down to Manger Square, the main tourist center of town. I commented to Jenny that I felt completely safe there with Gloria and Esther, as they were unconcerned and were greeting friends, but that I would have been very much on edge if we had been there without them in the evening. But it was fine.
We then drove to Beit Sahour, a nearby town, to have dinner at The Tent. What a meal it was. We had a dozen “salads”, a lot of bread, and a mixed platter of grilled meats. The salads ranged from what we Americans would call salads with leafy greens to dips like hummus, baba hganoush, and tahini. They weren’t all good (the canned corn was a bust), but some were fantastic (roasted eggplant baba ghanoush and tahini with parsley). We had the option to relax after the big meal by drinking Arabic coffee and smoking flavored tobacco out of a hookah. I think it would have been a lot of fun, but it was getting very late for those of us experiencing jet lag. Maybe next time.
On the drive home, Jenny and I nearly fell asleep – I don’t know that we would have made it had we gone to a concert first.
So, this is the end of our first day in Israel. We are staying in a house with a fantastic location, we have generous hosts who share and teach a lot, and we crossed peacefully into the West Bank to get a really tasty local dinner. Not a bad start.
Tomorrow, we’ll go to a service at Fred and Gloria’s church, and then we’ll probably start exploring the Old City. I can’t wait, but I need some sleep first.