A Catholic in Jerusalem

9:27 am

Tel Aviv, Israel

This morning I woke up and glanced at the henna stamp on the palm of my hand. I considered the night before and how it was just one of many events, some strange, mostly memorable, that had taken place just a few hours before.

My dear friend Rony is marrying the love of his life, Ella, a Yemenite Jew. After a day of mostly strolls, lost and deliberate, I arrived at their apartment on Ruth Street, a few short blocks from where I was staying. I watched as Rony hastily changed clothes and tried desperately to calm himself before his folks arrived for the ride to Jerusalem. I hadn’t seen his parents for nearly 8 years. They were two of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’d come across in all my life. Together, we’d crowd into a Subaru 4 x 4 and make our way to Jerusalem for the pre-wedding Yemenite ceremony.

After Rony, Ella, and I bid farewell to their spry little canine friend, we made our way down to the street where we were greeted warmly. “Nick, I can’t believe you are actually here,” Rony's mom said. “Yes. I’m here,” I assured her. I caught up with Rony’s folks as he and Ella made various phone calls to friends and family confirming there whereabouts, and they were indeed en route to Jerusalem. We talked about travel, art, and Rony’s father offered interesting tidbits of history as we glanced out the window inching ourselves closer to the holy city. “He’s my Google,” Rony’s mom joked.

Our ride to Jerusalem seemed effortless. When I stepped outside of the car a strange confidence took over as I felt I knew my way around. I’d only been here once and that was several years ago for a day at most. Still, I felt at peace despite being the ultimate outsider in appearance, nationality, and especially religion.

Before we entered the synagogue for the evening’s festivities Rony asked me to wear a yarmulke and to remove the crucifix around my neck. I quickly gathered that neither act was necessary, but I wanted to make my friend feel at ease and thus obliged.

People began to arrive at first like a light rain and then a steady downpour. Each person beamed as they approached Rony and his family offering congratulatory words and warm embraces. I spoke with Rony’s siblings for much of the evening as well as family friends, cousins, nephews, and uncles. I spent much of my time speaking with Yuval, Rony’s brother, and his in-laws; a delightful elderly couple originally from Jerusalem who happened to have a son who lived in Pasadena. We nearly fell over at the coincidence as I told them I just left there.

Yuval’s father-in-law revealed to me he and his wife had recently moved from Jerusalem because they felt more and more ill at ease being secular Jews in a community where it no longer felt comfortable to be as so.

I also spoke with Ella’s cousin, a young man named Anthony who’d lived an extraordinarily interesting life, especially for someone so young. We traded stories about living in Shanghai, travel, work, and I listened as he shared what Serbia was like and how pretty its girls were. His father approached with a plate full of food and listened attentively before offering some strong theories on business, the world economy, and history. He was a nice gentlemen and I found him interesting though admittedly I wasn’t always sure if he was talking to me or lecturing. I’ll have to bring my notebook to the wedding.

The ceremony itself is hard to describe. It was delivered in Hebrew no doubt and its roots are dated as far back as a thousand years. The garments entailed a golden outer coat worn by both, a tall head decoration triangular in shape and bordered with elaborate jewelry for the bride. Even I took part in the action wearing a traditional Yemenite robe and dancing the night away for hours with members of both sides of the family.

Perhaps only the food was more impressive. There were elaborate sweets, lots of delicious Kubaneh bread, fruit, vegetables, and did I mention bread? It was as they say, “in the house.”

Eventually the night came to a close as Ella, Rony, and their close friend Karen drove us back to Tel Aviv in her Peugeot 308. Earlier in the evening, I wondered if Israelis had ever tried to make their own cars to which Rony responded, “Once, but it did not go well.”

Alas, I arrived back at good ole’ Pinsker Street. Karen dropped me off at about 1:30 am just in front of what I gathered was an argument between a young man and woman; a couple in or around love. I don’t miss that part of it, I thought to myself.

I thanked her for the ride and made my way into the apartment. The lights were dim and the air conditioner in my room had been thoughtfully turned on, the only signs that I was not alone and that maybe there was life around me; something I’d doubted the past two days.

I lay myself down without bothering to change, exhausted at all I’d seen, heard, and learned, most for the first time. After a few moments of trying to get comfortable in these now cool dark quarters it simply took a casual turn to my side for me to drift off to a long deep sleep.

Yesterday, I spoke at length with Yuval’s father-in-law about travel. I mentioned off-handedly that I’d heard Cairo wasn’t such a nice place to visit after I told him I was considering a visit. He said, “It’s an interesting city. You have to be respectful and look at each new place like an anthropologist.” I completely agreed, embarrassed I’d even brought it up.

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