General News

Eighty-four nights. That is what we paid for at the Armenian Guest House at 36 Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem. For that money, we received a good room in a wonderful location from which to spend twelve weeks making memories, having experiences, and meeting new friends. And how does one put a price tag on those things?

Our final week has been spent saying good-bye to people, attending lectures, visiting favorite spots and discovering new ones, sometimes by accident! Last week, on a final trip over to the Israeli museum, we went right when we should have walked left. We ended up cutting through the rose garden at the Knesset. Minutes after John had just said we hadn’t seen any of the protests that happen regularly at the Knesset, we came to five foot wall above a protest. Soldiers and police were standing calmly by. The mostly woman soldiers were surprised to see us appear above them in the bushes. After ascertaining that we were not A problem and that we were indeed now going in the right direction to the museum, two soldiers helped me lower me down from the wall (John was fine on his own) and off we went.

This was in marked contrast to the afternoon sung Vespers at St. James Armenian Orthodox Church. Calm, cool colorful, ethereal, it was a far cry from politics in Israel.












When we first arrived, it was cold, the last throes of winter. We are leaving in high heat, the beginning of summer. We experienced the first of the strawberries as well as apricots and now cherries in the markets. Tulips were starting to bloom when we arrived; roses and bougenvilla abound now.  

We experienced Ash Wednesday, Purim, Holy Week, Passover, Eastern and Western Easter, and the Night Ride of Mohammad. In between seasons, harvests and holidays, we experienced great beauty, breathtaking wonders, broad history, culture and art, good food, and fun times. We have also seen  firsthand the institutionalized violence in action and an occupational system that is “painting itself into a corner” of failure.












Tomorrow, after we leave the Guest House that has been home for so many weeks, we will sight-see our way to the airport near Tel Aviv. There is still much to see in this Holy Land including a village that may have been Biblical Emmaus, a monastery famous for its wine, Herod’s ancient seaport, and a small town that has often been our “first night off the plane” resting place.

Eighty-four nights plus two spent in planes: a rich, rewarding time. Landing at home, God willing, on the Feast of St. Brendan the Navigator, the Irish saint who got into a “coracle without oars” to discover where God was leading, we will leave this place deeply satisfied and thankful. We, too, will look forward to seeing where our “coracle” ultimately lands.

Shalom and good night!

Songs From the Places In Between
(after Rory Stewart)

by Valerie E. Hess c. 2017

Part V

Waking to church on a Sunday morning,
the Old City seems older.
Dark from shuttered store fronts,
the ancient stones seem to sag even more.
The garbage is more visible
against the green metal doors
silently protecting their treasures and trinkets.
A mourning dove drinks from a fetid puddle.
Sun and blue sky appear briefly
through an opening in the covered passageway.
A nun talks to a suitcase merchant,
open like an early bird waiting
for the sinuous line of pilgrims
who will soon wind their way
through the path of suffering,
adding their prayers to the appointed stations
whose stones have been made holy
by the prayers of many languages
who desperately need them to be authentic.
I climb upward,
slowly, silently,
and round the corner into the open plaza.
Blue sky, sun, white stones swept clean
welcome me
as the bells high above start ringing.
The valley of the shadow
has again been safely navigated. 

After Easter, we had wondered a bit what our focus might be after the intensity of Lent and Holy Week. We need not have been concerned. We find ourselves in a form of meditative prayer, soaking in the rich density of life here. Last week was again wonderfully full, so much so we never once made it to the library at the Rockefeller Museum for reading time!

Wednesday found us enjoying a long and leisurely lunch at the American Colony Hotel. The American Colony is my favorite luxury hotel here. It is elegant in an understated way. The gardens on the compound are a riot of color and variety. The service is attentive but not obtrusive. The decor is Middle Eastern beauty. I even love the “old bazaar” style gift shop next door to a wonderful book store with many titles in English. We go there at least once a week to read the New York Times, Middle East version, as well as The Jerusalem Post, and Ha’aretz. The news is discouraging everywhere but the comfortable chairs and view of the courtyard garden helps me keep perspective. Being in a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times is also helpful in understanding that there are larger forces at work in the world than current history and politics seem to indicate.

On Thursday, after our morning time in the organ loft at Redeemer Lutheran Church, we went grocery shopping. We discovered an amazing Russian grocery store near our regular loop of shops and markets. We will be checking it out again before we leave!

Next, we decided to check out the Print Workshop, a building we had walked by numerous times but had never actually made it into. What a delightful surprise! The owner of the building told us the history, everything from the printing press they had that had published the first ever newspaper in Hebrew to being a home with a synagogue in it to housing Italian prisoners of war (as it is just down from what used to be an Italian church, now the Israeli Ministry of Education). It turns out the man was a student of Jacob Pins, whose prints we had just seen at the Ticho House museum (now part of the Israel Musuem).

Study for a chicken

We will be going back, as they were closing and we were on our way to the weekly lecture at the Albright Archeological Institute.

On our way, we finally located where the Mandelbaum Gate had been, a crossing between east and west Jerusalem. John had read the book by Kai Bird on his childhood in Jerusalem and his daily crossing of that checkpoint to go to school. The Gate was eventually torn down and a tall stone sundial now stands where it was but with no plaque indicating the history of the spot. Also, the marker is between the light rail tracks in the middle of a highway! Not easy to find.

View from former Mandelbaum Gate















After the lecture, I suggested we go home via the Damascus Gate vs. the Herod Gate. That nudging meant we stumbled into the three-day Nablus Road street fair unexpectedly. Most of the institutions on the road opened their gates and housed face painting, craft booths, and food vendors. The British Council was passing out British scones and the American Colony Hotel had its heritage room open, a space we didn’t know existed. (The American Colony Hotel was started by the Spaffords of the hymn “It is Well With My Soul” fame. It morphed into a bizarre cult. Descendants still own it but it is now managed by a Swiss hotel chain.) We ran into people we have met here who told us about a book signing at the Palestinian Cultural Center. Of course, we headed in to hear Stephanie Saldana, an American, speak about living on the Nablus Road for seven years. Her book, “A Country Between,” is the Nablus Road equivalent to “Married to a Bedouin.” Both books are recommended reading along with Elinor Burckett’s insightful book, “Golda.” Consider these for your summer reading list.

Last night, we went to a Reformed synagogue service near the German colony.

Kehilat Kol HaNeshama synagogue

Sr. Rita of Ecce homo takes each round of volunteers here and she invited us to join this group. It was my first Shabbat service ever. Sr. Maureena, who is 91 and still runs Ecce homo’s Biblical studies from a Jewish perspective programs, met us there and gave us a useful tutorial through the service book ahead of time. The book, of course read right to left, was in English and Hebrew with the Hebrew also in transliteration. I love that the Friday night service is mostly singing and welcoming in the Sabbath. It begins with passages from the Song of Solomon, reminding us that our faith is first and foremost a love relationship with God. Thanks to Sr. Maureena and the rabbi’s occasional page number call-out in English, we kept up pretty well. Sr. Maureena believes that is the keeping of the Sabbath, as laid out by God in Genesis 2, that has allowed the Jewish people to outlive all other cultures and people groups. Considering that a volunteer pointed out in the post-service dinner discussion that all dynasties (familial, cultural, industrial) seem to last only 200 years, I found Sr. Maureena ‘s assessment compelling. Sr. Maureena emphasized that Sunday is “the Lord’s day,” not the seventh day of the week Sabbath. Also, the Sabbath, as outlined in Genesis and confirmed by several rabbis she consulted with is meant to bless all people, not just the Jews. Lessons from this unique place to ponder.

One other touching moment was when Sr. Maureena pointed out that the words of the Shema (Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one…) are words Jesus would have said in worship when he lived on earth. Saying them in a suburb of Jerusalem was very powerful, indeed.

Shalom and good night!


Last Thursday, most Palestinian schools and businesses closed in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners’ strike. On Friday, the day of prayer for Muslims, more businesses than usual stayed shut. Violence did erupt in some areas, sadly. There were a lot of soldiers at the end of our street as that area, where the roads for the Damascus Gate and Lion’s Gate meet, can be a flashpoint. Mercifully, all was calm there.

Beginning Sunday night, Israel observed Memorial Day; May 1st was Labor Day for the Palestinians. Many Israelis observed a minute of silence when the air raid siren went off at 11 AM Monday morning. Beginning Monday night, through sundown Tuesday, it is Independence Day, the 69th anniversary of Israeli statehood. Most Jewish businesses are closed today and parks are full of grilling meat kebabs and playing children. The Israeli Air Force did two fly-overs midday and Israeli  flags are everywhere.

The Tomb of Herod’s family in the park.













Yesterday, we took the light rail along with a lot of Israeli citizens and soldiers on their way to Memorial Day ceremonies at Mount Hertzl. We went the other direction from that point and bussed over to the synagogue at Hadassah hospital. While waiting for the ceremony in there to end so we could see the Chagall windows, we explored the shopping center, complete with grocery store, inside the hospital! That was a first, for sure.

The Chagall windows are stunning. There are twelve of them, each one representing one of the Tribes of ancient Israel.

Hadassah hospital synagogue: Chagall windows

What a treat it was to see them in context and we had the place to ourselves after a group from Argentina left.
















Hadassah hospital in the background

We then hiked from the hospital on the top of the ridge down the valley into Ein Kerem, the traditional home of John the Baptist. Ein Kerem is a cross between Davenport, CA and Eldorado Springs, CO minus the water. Lots of flowers and some lovely ceramicists live in houses along narrow streets and alleys. 













































We also visited the Church of St. John the Baptist that includes the grotto marking his traditional birthplace.

X marks the spot of John’s birth!


All blue-and-white tiles.












Tiles in many language of the Benedicamus.











Riding home in another full train along Jaffa Street, we saw lots of flags and banners, and throngs of people preparing to party. We heard music and fireworks later in the evening from the guest house courtyard.  Around midnight, Israeli youth under armed guard, came marching down the Via Dolorosa and through the Muslim quarter chanting loudly. These are provocative marches that imply ownership and dominance. As I mentioned above, today things are more “family cook-out” focused and the streets have a Shabbat emptiness to them.

An Orthodox Jewish man and Jaffa Street decorations

All the Palestinians are having a normal work day. It is interesting to be in a “two state” holiday situation, one group celebrating and the other mourning while working a regular shift. We have learned a lot in our time here, to say the least.

Two Men Arguing by Jakob Pins













Shalom and good night!

Last night, we went to try a new restaurant in Beit Jala, in the West Bank, adjacent to Bethlehem. Qabar had been recommended to us by locals as the best chicken around. Four of us climbed in the car and headed over. Our friend who was driving also speaks Arabic and so we were able to navigate to this tiny off-the-beaten-path restaurant in a fairly straightforward manner. This is a very  local place: paper on the tables and only one item on the menu. Napkins were torn sheets of the same paper on the table.

Qabar chicken dinner

Before we had even sat down, the table was full of Arab salads and four plates, each holding half a chicken, including the neck bone with its thin layer of meat. There was an amazing garlic sauce to dip the chicken in.





Next, we went to a little place in a more rural area for coffee. It is in Area C, which means they cannot get permission to build or expand. It is an old building but mostly, you sit outside.
They build a bonfire for warmth. They allow camping there and offer it as a place for people to experience nature who don’t have much access to it. Our waiter cannot get a Jerusalem ID card even though he was born in Jerusalem and his mother has one. He was raised in one of the nearby refugee camps. That means he can’t easily travel outside of the West Bank, even to visit relatives. He had been to Europe recently and enjoyed the freedom to travel to various countries without being stopped.








On our way back to Jerusalem, we stopped at Banksy’s “Walled-Off Hotel.” The pictures say it all.


At the checkpoint, our driver showed her American passport and all of us were waved through with no further checking. Is this wall for security or intimidation?

I suspect both. Lord, in your mercy…











Today, most Muslim businesses and schools are shut down in solidarity with the hunger strike going on in the Palestinian prisons, now in its 11th day. It was eerie walking the dark and shuttered Via Dolorosa to practice. Tomorrow, the Palestinian Authority has called for “a day of rage,” which could lead to disruption and even violence.

Banksy art inside Walled-Off Hotel

Rumor is the Old City will shut down at some point tonight. We did our usual pre-Shabbat grocery shopping so we are all stocked up. We had hoped to go back to Ein Kerem tomorrow but that may not happen. Stay tuned!

Shalom and good night.

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