By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
“… with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
Of sundry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle …”
KANSAS CITY — My first sight of Israel, seen from the window of an airplane flying low over the Mediterranean Sea toward Tel Aviv, was like no other. The sun danced on blue water, bounced off ornate older buildings as well as more than 50 glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers, palm, sycamore and almond trees, and a mix of cars, trams and buses. As the aircraft landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, the sheer numbers of planes and travelers amazed me.
I was excited and awed to be in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage during the Year of Faith. Led by Father Ernie Davis, pastoral administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish and leader of our pilgrim group, 29 pilgrims boarded a tour bus that took us to a hotel for dinner and some much needed sleep. Our tour guide, a Muslim from Nazareth named Billy, gave us an overview of Israel on our way to the hotel.
As the bus entered Tel Aviv’s center, I became more aware of the melange of religious faiths within the city’s bounds —92 percent of its population are Jews of all traditions; Christians, both western and eastern; Muslims and Asians comprise the remaining 8 percent. Churches, synagogues and mosques dwell amiably near one another. A few buildings still bear the pockmarks of bullets from the 6-Day War in 1967.
On the streets, men wearing keffiyers, yarmulkes or tall, black hats and tallit/tzitzit (white, fringed, 4-cornered garments similar to a poncho), walked side-by-side with jeans-clad men sporting baseball caps or bare heads. Women wearing the full habits of religious sisters, burkas, or skirts and capes with scarves or knitted caps covering their hair, nodded to those dressed in business suits or jeans. Above the traffic noise I could hear the bongs of church bells weaving around the undulating cry of muezzins calling Muslims to prayer.
Tel Aviv, a city blending the early 20th century with the modern, was founded in 1909 by a group of 60 Russian Jewish immigrant families who platted their new city using sea shells. The settlers wanted to name their new city, located a mere 3 miles from the ancient city of Jaffa, in a way that would honor both the past and future. The name Tel Aviv was chosen, recalling the words of Ezekiel 3:15, “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-Abib, that lived by the river Chebar, and to where they lived; and I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days.” Tel is a Hebrew word meaning a hill or mound built of layers of civilization on top of each other, symbolizing the ancient past, and Aviv means “spring,” — in other words, the hill of spring, a renewal or renaissance. It was the first Jewish city built after almost 2,000 years of the Diaspora. The Diaspora, the exile and dispersion of the Jews from their homeland, began in 70 A.D., and lasted until 1948.
That evening we enjoyed watching the sunset on the Mediterranean as we walked on sand as fine as baby powder on a beach near the hotel.
The next morning dawned blue and gold. Following a kosher breakfast of fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, fish and yogurt, we boarded the bus for our first stop — St. Peter’s Church in Jaffa, built in 1896 under the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The church, surrounded by trees filled with chirping birds against a backdrop of the blue Mediterranean, was built on the site where St. Peter cured Tabitha.
Tabitha was a disciple who lived in Joppa (Jaffa) with the widows (the poor), who kept busy doing good deeds. She fell ill and died, and was laid out in an upstairs room of the house. Other disciples, hearing that Peter was nearby, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”
Peter went with them and was taken to the room where Tabitha was laid out. Peter sent everyone out of the room and knelt to pray. He then took the dead woman’s hand and commanded her to rise up, which she did. When this became known, more people came to believe in Jesus.
Father Davis offered the Mass of the Annunciation in the church. In his homily, Father Davis reminded us that “Mary said ‘yes’ to God when the angel told her she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Each of us is invited to say our own ‘Yes,’ to God, to what he wants us to do.”
Following the Mass and several minutes to take photos of the church and its surroundings, we pilgrims trooped back to the bus. Billy continued his overview of the land, its people, its faith traditions, wars and politics — a story full of names, places and events familiar to us, Catholics who knew a bit of the Old Testament.
The land of Israel covers about 14,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. About 75 percent of the 8 million inhabitants are Jewish. Both secular and religious, they come from more than 80 different nations.
About 24 percent are Arab — Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian. The remaining 1 percent are Christians of Maronite, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Chaldean and Latin Rite traditions and Asian.
Israel is a democratic nation, with both a president and a prime minister. The parliament is called the Knesset. Of the Knesset’s 22 members, one quarter are Arab.
The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with most residents having at least a working knowledge of English. Hebrew is the language of the Bible and the Torah, and is written from right to left. Numeric characters are read and written from left to right.
Arabic is the language of the Quran and the Arab residents. English is the language of business and trade.
There are 7 universities in Israel: two in Tel Aviv, two in Jerusalem, two in Haifa and one in Beersheba.
The health care system works well. Health insurance is employer provided, and the government pays premiums for the unemployed until they find a job. All surgical operations are performed free of charge, except plastic surgery which a patient must pay for in total and transplants, of which one third of the cost is the patients’ responsibility.
Military service is compulsory for both men and women once they reach the age of 18. Men are required to serve 3 years and women two.
Two major industries in Israel are diamonds: imported, cut, polished and exported; and tourism, the main source of foreign currencies. The national currency is the shekel, a name rooted in the word shaqal: to weigh. Currently, the rate of exchange is about four shekels to one dollar. Gasoline is purchased by the liter.
Israeli cooks choose from grains, fruits including pomegranates, dates, mangoes, peaches, apricots and plums, a variety of olives, vegetables including peppers, chickpeas, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers, lamb, fish and chicken, nuts including fresh-picked almonds, honey, spices and more. Possibly the most famous dish is falafel, made of mashed chick peas, rolled into balls and fried in olive oil. Shawarma, mixed meats grilled on a spit, is eaten with tabbouleh (bulger wheat or couscous salad with vegetables), breads or pitas, tomato and cucumber. Both falafel and shawarma are served in restaurants and the cafes of the old souks (markets) all over Israel. Shawarma has become a fast-food staple world-wide.
Ancient and modern civilizations, religious faiths, nationalities and languages built one on top of another. All seem to coexist, at times more amicably than at others, under heaven. Billy summed it up: “This is the Holy Land.”
This is the first in a series of reflections on a recent pilgrimage to Israel led by St. Therese Little Flower Parish Administrator Fr. Ernie Davis.