“Ok, I’ve got my purse, my sandwich and water bottle, my phone, my key, my Rav-Kav (bus pass). I think I’m all set.” I take a deep breath and head for the door of my tiny Jerusalem apartment. Bright sun, blue sky— it’s a beautiful November day. My husband left in the dark early this morning, taking our rental car with him back to the airport. His flight was booked with points and mine on a seat sale with a different airline. Our arrival and departure times didn’t perfectly align, and I now have three days ahead of me to explore this holy city alone. We had toured together all the way from Dan in the north to Eilat, which sits on the shores of the Red Sea at the southernmost tip of Israel. Celebrating our 20th anniversary a few months early with this big trip, we had covered a lot of ground in two weeks. But public transit is all I need now that I’m in Jerusalem.
It’s the first time I’ve ridden the bus alone, but I know my way. First to the train station. Then the train will take me all the way down Jaffa Street. I know where to get off. From there, it’s just a short walk to the wall of the Old City. I’ll go in Jaffa Gate and follow the signs for the “Ramparts Walk.” That’s what I have planned for this morning. I am going to walk along the top of the wall of the Old City. The views will be amazing.
“Hmm, which direction do I want to go? The north side walk or the south side walk?” I wonder as I make my way to the ticket booth just inside Jaffa Gate. I purchase my ticket and ascend the steps, deciding on the longer walk, the north side, which will take me around the Christian and Arab quarters of the Old City. From the narrow pathway atop the wall, there are photo worthy views in all directions. There are also lots of tourists milling about, but I appear to be the only solo traveller.
I round a corner to see a couple just a short distance ahead of me. The husband is standing with a small book in one hand as he holds his other hand outstretched beyond the wall. He appears to be reading aloud from the book, or perhaps he’s praying. Or perhaps it’s both. They smile as I approach, having to make way for me in this narrow space. “Good morning,” I say.
“Good morning,” they both reply in heavy Dutch accents.
Recognition dawns on me. “Were you at Jerusalem Baptist Church yesterday morning?” I ask. I’m sure they are the couple from Holland that stood to introduce themselves during the worship service, as we all did, who were visitors.
“Yes. We were there.”
I knew it.
“We’re reading scripture over the city today.” They felt called to play the part of the watchmen the prophet Isaiah wrote about: “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night…” (Isaiah 62:6 KJV).
After our little chat and well wishes to one another, I continue my walk, already feeling less alone. I can see further up ahead that there is some construction happening on the wall. I pass by a small group of men working on the repairs. I smile and greet them simply in Hebrew. “Shalom. Ma schlomcha (Hello. How are you)?” One fellow in a ball cap and dirty white work pants is kneeling by a bucket of wet mortar, his tools in hand. He smiles, his grin wrinkling his swarthy face. He’s probably been working in the hot sun for many years.
As I keep going, the path seems to be narrowing even more, the stones under my feet becoming more uneven. I’ve past a few points where I could have exited the ramparts walk and gone back down to street level, but I opt to keep going each time. I want to get my money’s worth and see all there is to see, even if my feet are starting to ache a bit. There are fewer fellow tourists now. The sights and smells and sounds below me change too as I pass from the Christian quarter into the Arab quarter of the city.
I see another workman up ahead, working on another section of the wall. It seems strange that he’s all alone. As I approach, I suddenly recognize the same man with the soiled white pants. How did he get ahead of me again without passing me? He’s kneeling, presumably at work, but springs to his feet as I approach to pass by. Again I smile and say, “Shalom.” He seems to want a bit of small talk, asking my name and where I’m from. “Ani Erin. Ani me-Canada (I’m Erin. I’m from Canada),” I respond. “Ve ma shimcha (And what’s your name)?” I ask.
“Schmi Sammy,” his says, flashing his grin. He is missing a few teeth, but his eyes seem kind.
“Na-eem me-od, Sammy (Nice to meet you),” I return kindly, intending to continue on my way. Before I can, he takes my hand. I’m expecting a simple handshake like westerners are accustomed to but am startled that I can’t free my hand from his grip. He raises it to his lips, planting a kiss squarely on top, a gesture that would not be wholly inappropriate — if there were other tourists or workers in the vicinity. But I suddenly realize I am very alone with Sammy. I remain calm, not wanting to jump to conclusions, knowing that Israeli’s are extremely friendly people. I have managed to get to the other side of him now but have no idea how far it is to the next exit.
“Selfie,” Sammy starts saying. Oh, no! He wants a picture with this Canadian girl. There’s probably no harm in that, except that he is standing under an archway, in a little alcove, insisting on taking the picture there. I shake my head saying, “Lo toda (no thank you).” He keeps motioning for me to join him in his hiding spot. “Lo beseder (not ok),” I mutter in Hebrew as I look frantically around for something that looks like an exit. I walk briskly away, hoping that as I turn my back he will not decide to follow. Thankfully, a few feet ahead I find stairs, my ticket off of this lofty path which so quickly has turned into what feels more like a prison.
I race down the steps to find myself in a crowded market. It’s a little startling actually to go from the quiet and seclusion of the wall to the loud crowded street. The words I hear around me are just part of the noise. I recognize nothing. I am in the Arab quarter now. Me and my uncovered head are sorely out of place. Groups of men, sitting drinking coffee, follow me with their eyes, probably wondering about this stranger that has just dropped from the sky. Women and children are eyeing me too as I try to decide which direction to go. Their inquisitive gazes might have made me uncomfortable a few minutes earlier. But now? Now I’m happy to have a hundred eyes on me! It’s much better than Sammy’s singular grin.
I have no idea where I am or how to get back to anywhere that’s familiar to me. I start walking, still feeling the need to keep moving after my fright up on the ramparts. There is safety in numbers, and that’s all that matters to me in this moment — staying in crowded places. Eventually I find my way back to the Christian quarter and spy one of the many shops that sell freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I have been craving one ever since landing in Israel two weeks ago. I enter and watch as the shopkeeper pulls down a huge metal handle, squishing the purply red blood out of the pomegranate seeds. It spurts into my cup, filling it to the brim. I pay, emerging from his shop with delight, determined to savour all that is sweet and good about this day, a day that could have turned so sour a few minutes before. Holding my drink in one hand, I fish out my phone and snap a picture of my yummy drink, all the while keeping pace with the throng of people moving along the crowded streets of the market.
“That must be a good looking drink you’ve got there,” teases a voice next to me.
“Oh, I’ve been craving one of these for weeks,” I say. “I’m just excited to finally have one in my hand.” I discover I’m talking to a tour guide. His English is impeccable. I’m not sure he’s Israeli. He looks more Irish-American in my opinion. We’re walking in the same direction so we continue our conversation until he suddenly turns around, barking orders at his tour group. I hadn’t realized these tourists pressing around me belonged to him. They stop to admire something, and I keep going on my way. I will cross paths with this group and their guide three times as the day goes on. Eventually he will offer me his phone number in case I need anything while I’m here alone. I thank him but politely refuse, not exactly sure what his intentions are. Maybe I’m still a bit shaken from my encounter with Sammy.
Finally I see the Damascus Gate. I now know where I am, and my belly is telling me it’s time for lunch. Exiting the gate, I climb the steps that form a sort of amphitheatre outside. I perch on one of those steps to eat my sandwich. Others have done the same. Facing back toward the Old City, I can watch people coming and going. Just outside the gate a man sits begging. He is a double leg amputee, and I get the feeling that this is his regular spot. The Israeli police officers in the nearby guard booth seem to know him.
I am enjoying my sandwich and the last of my pomegranate juice when I see a group of pilgrims congregating to the side of the gate, near the beggar. One of them begins to strum a guitar. They are waving Israeli and Mexican flags as they begin to sing. It’s a lively song of worship in another language I don’t know. But I know they are praising Jesus. The man with no legs is delighted with the performance. He bounces around joyously, trying his best to dance, vigorously shaking his cup of coins. The guards emerge from their booth in their police uniforms, and I wonder if these pilgrims are in for it. But they clap and cheer them on too. “Only in Jerusalem,” I think to myself as I try to capture the scene on camera. There is no other city on earth like this.
How could I ever feel alone in this place? I talk to complete strangers here in a way I would never do back in North America. Maybe that’s just part of the excitement of being a tourist, but I think it’s more than that. It’s not just the tourists who are open to conversation, open to spontaneous joy, open to the moment. The people that call this land home live like that too. Even in the vast diversity of this lively city, there is connection. There is community. We see news reports, and we envision a land of hatred and enemies living in a constant state of war. I will not deny there is much hatred and enmity here. But the normal, everyday people, living and making a living in this place, have learned to coexist, even to coexist with joy. They interact with one another across their ethnic and religious divisions. They look out for one another, even across generations.
On my way home later that afternoon, while waiting for my bus at a crowded station, I catch sight of two teenage boys. They are having a scuffle over something, and it soon turns violent. They are fighting for real now, one boy pushing the other to the ground, kicking him. Suddenly, a total stranger stands up and approaches. No, it isn’t a tall man in a business suit or a construction worker like Sammy. It’s a little old granny in her traditional Jewish dress. She hobbles toward the boys and angrily yells at them in Hebrew, slapping the worst offender with her big purse. I watch in amazement as these boys jump up and run off. Perhaps they continued their disagreement elsewhere. Who knows? But I am more enthralled with the behaviour of the old lady. If a granny thought to pull a stunt like that where I live, she’d be taking her very life in her hands.
A few minutes later my bus arrives, and I climb on. There is standing room only. At our next stop, an elderly man boards the already full bus. I am amazed to see all the teen boys near the front of the bus hop up from their seats, almost in competition to offer this old gentleman a place to sit. It seems natural to them, the force of habit. “A very good habit,” I muse to myself.
That evening I’m thankful to return to my apartment in its quiet suburb. My first day alone has been quite an adventure. But in my aloneness, I didn’t feel alone. All day I was more ready to catch someone’s eye, more ready to engage in spontaneous conversation, more ready to share joy. Perhaps I was just lonely. Or was it that my aloneness made me more aware of and dependent on God’s presence? And His Spirit within me is no static recluse. Jesus likened it to water, water that flows, bubbles, springs up eternally. Is that what moved me to look up and reach out and connect?
Alone. Literally “all one” — wholly oneself. In a way, solitude helps to remind me of what makes me whole. The Hebrew word for alone (לבד) comes from a root that refers to the branch of a tree. When I am alone, I am more apt to trace my solitary branch to its source, to cling tighter to the Vine that supports me and gives me life. “Alive” means being in life. Can being “alone” remind me that I am in God? That He is enough? That He makes me enough?
Such a solo wholeness is only possible though when I know the reality of another “one” word — atone. Literally “at one.” The atoning blood of Jesus ushers me into perfect fellowship with God, and who can be lonely in the midst of Trinity unity? As the saying goes, “Jesus plus nothing equals everything.” When I know the power of the word “atone” I no longer fear the prospect of being “alone.” In fact, there is a comfort I can only experience from God when I’m not looking to others to prop me up, save me, entertain me, or divert me. God becomes what He has always wanted to be — my everything!
God watched me and went with me that day. He kept me safe. And moment by moment there were blessings we shared together. Like Wordsworth and his dancing daffodils, I hid away many special moments in my heart — people, places, sights, sounds, tastes, tableaux shared with my Heavenly Father and forever etched in my mind’s eye. I intentionally savoured them and then stuffed them away, like food stored up for a long winter. Little did I know how long this “winter” would be. I still don’t know. In this new reality of COVID and travel restrictions, how long will it be before I can wander my favourite Jerusalem streets again? But these memories, and so many more, are wrapped carefully in the folds of my heart. Both the sweet and the sour nourish me, reminding me of God’s presence and care, reminding me that I am never really alone.
Things have been rather quiet around the blog lately. I have been taking a writing course this winter with author Leslie Leyland Fields called Your Story Matters. Most of my free time/writing time has been taken up with the pieces I’ve been working on for class, such as the above. Hopefully I will have some more stories to share here in the weeks to come. What have you been up to on these wintry days?