When in Jerusalem

When heartbreak, violence, and a new beginning collide in the holiest of cities.

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in Features

My favorite activity in Sunday School was when our teacher would hand out construction paper and crayons and ask us to illustrate scenes from the Bible. My little sister and I spent hours trading paper colors and trying our hands at depicting famous moments: Moses and the burning bush, Noah and his animals, Mary Magdalene in an empty tomb, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Moses always had a big nose, hairy eyebrows, and a thorny wreath around his head — I still do not know where we got this idea — and Adam and Eve looked a lot like our Ken and Barbie dolls, with shapely bodies that in no way resembled actual human bodies. Every time we colored scenes like these from the Bible, my sister and I bonded over that construction paper, inventing and imagining our own ways into the stories we heard every Sunday while our mom sang in the choir and our dad sat in the audience down the hall in the sanctuary. And after every Sunday school, we proudly pinned our masterpieces to the refrigerator, where they’d sit, lopsided under the magnet, until the next week, when we could pin up a new one.

This was how I learned the stories of the Bible. It was also how I came to understand the land of Israel. For most of my life, this tiny sliver in the Middle East has always been a menagerie of scenes rendered with crayon onto brightly colored construction paper. I preferred this world of crayon and paper, where I could take an ancient story and make it my own, one that usually featured female characters with big blue eyes, straight-up eyelashes, and bow-shaped lips. I was pretty shy, the girl always buried in her coloring books, and I loved being the creator of my characters’ destinies. Sometimes, after Sunday school let out, I’d imagine a different reality for the women, Eve on a horse, riding out of Eden, her hair flowing in the wind; Mary Magdalene as a mermaid princess reigning over the Dead Sea. In this world of ideas, I could make the women independent, adventurous; I could do whatever I wanted with them.

I decided, early on, that I would be a writer when I grew up. But not a fiction writer, not like the artist I was when no one was looking. I decided I would be a real-life writer, one whose writing subsisted on having adventures that went further than her backyard. That kind of writer, I imagined, would let me become like the women I wanted my biblical women to be: strong, perpetually interesting, unafraid. To practice my writing skills, I started keeping a journal when I was five years old, documenting the goings-on of the suburban neighborhood in which we lived. To this day, when I’m traveling, I only take a notebook and a pen, never a laptop, to record my experiences. I’ve got a whole shelf of battered journals on a bookshelf in my living room.

I’ve spent the last ten years amassing these journals, one by one, each evoking another adventurous, daring scene of me, the protagonist, doing things like climbing into an active mud volcano in Colombia, bathing a baby elephant in Chiang Mai with bark that turns into soap when it gets wet, traipsing through the dense forests of Borneo in my hiking boots, traveling to Kizhi, one of Russia’s northernmost islands, to see a wooden castle built without nails. I’ve written it all down. All the people I’ve met, the places I’ve gone, the things I’ve done. I wanted this to be my legacy, piles and piles of paper, all describing the amazing life I led. This compulsion to record reminds me, a little, of a story I once read about the Corsini family, who, for over 600 years, has been chronicling every detail of the day, with so much fervor that they eventually decided to cease their constant chronicling in the 1960s because the family has no more room in their archives to store the paper. I’ve often imagined my own grandkids dealing with this same problem. Where are we going to put grandma’s journals?

But there was one key part of this story that I kept putting off. I turned 29 and went to Taiwan on my first trip as a journalist. I turned 30 and took a trip to Eastern Europe. I turned 31, and 32, and 33. And then I realized I didn’t have any descendants, which meant I certainly wouldn’t have any grandkids to unearth my yellowing journals one day. Around the time I hit 32, I began noticing that my Facebook feed had changed. Friends, one after another, were making different journeys — forays into an unexplored terrain that involved bottles, diaper stories, and baby strollers. Friends who’d once been as intrepid voyagers as I’d been were staying home, more fascinated, now, by the simple act of watching their newborn child sleep in a crib or witnessing their baby take a first step. It terrified me, but traveling has always terrified me, too — I’m the kind of girl who cries every single time — every single time — before a trip, her suitcase a mess, her anxiety bubbling over, telling me I’ll get lost, I’ll get robbed, I’ll have a miserable time and have nothing to write about when I come home, and yet, I always go, and I always find something spectacular to write about, someone endlessly fascinating to talk to, something awesome to do. Every single time.

I knew that a child would irrevocably change the life I had, but it also seemed like its own adventure, one that, once I found my husband, seemed less and less impossible. The summer he finished his graduate degree, we decided we’d try it; I mean, why shouldn’t we? It was an innocent start at first; I knew so little about my body and about how new people are made. Each month, I began unfolding realities about my body, realities that brought my cycle back each month, and almost nine months later, I was put on medication and watched as the doctor checked off “unexplained infertility” on our insurance form. This journey began in the shadows of my sister’s own conception journey, one that had taken her through multiple miscarriages and multiple fertility specialists. In December of last year, the doctors told my sister and her husband they could try insemination one last time before turning to in-vitro fertilization or adoption.

The week before my sister’s last procedure, I peed on a stick and watched two pink lines bloom onto the wet paper. Watching those lines deepen, I felt as if my whole life toppled out onto the floor and I did not know how to pick up the pieces. I was elated and terrified, and I was not sure how I was going to tell my sister.

Several weeks later, Ryan and I held hands in the ultrasound room and watched as the nurse searched for, but could not find, a heartbeat. I cried more than I thought possible, like the flood I once imagined smacking up against Noah’s ark. The doctors went in and took it all out, and just like that, it was like it never happened. Notes in my medical chart — miscarriage has occurred — were added

A week after that, my sister announced that she was pregnant and there was a heartbeat.

Three months after that, I went to Jerusalem.

We had already booked our trip when my sister sent out the evites for her gender reveal party, which she had planned for a spring Saturday in March, the last day we’d be Israel. When we landed in Tel Aviv, the distance between us was palpable, and yet, it was a relief to be in Israel, to be so many thousands of miles away from our own sterile clinics and tests. If I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to think about the fact that I had not yet had a regular period. That my body was no longer on a cycle that moved with the moons. That in the wake of my sister’s successful pregnancy, I suddenly felt like I’d waited too long, that I’d missed my fertility window, that I’d been too selfish, too scared, too afraid of change. All we had to think about here were things like chickpeas and eggplants and every kind of pastry and bread you could imagine, piping hot and fully-prepared by someone else’s hands.

I didn’t go to Israel for the reasons you might think, either; I didn’t go to escape from my grief, and I didn’t go to rediscover anything about myself. I went with a fellow colleague and friend, Rachel, and our husbands Ryan and David, to test out the idea of a class we were working on. If our proposal passed, we were hoping to bring students to Israel for a week to write about their food experiences. As a young nation, Israel has some of the most fascinating food histories in the world — it is everything from ingredients and recipes harvested and prepared since the time of the Torah to a recent burgeoning of hip things like urban rooftop gardens to modern takes on classic Middle Eastern dishes like fried garbanzo balls and grilled meats.

We spent the first six days of our trip traveling around the country with Anat, Shakhar, and Roi, three Israeli guides who specialized in different regions of Israel — Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem. Each day, we learned — and tasted — something a little different about Israel. Anat took us to Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, to taste Faheema, goat’s cheese rimmed with charcoal; burika, a Libyan pita sandwich filled with potatoes and eggs and fried; mutabbak, Yemeni folded pancakes filled with eggs and meats; and Etrog, local citrus fruit squeezed into an electric green juice and energized with a dash of khat. At night, we stood in line at a food stall without a name and ordered sabich, a popular Iraqi street food made with fried eggplant, eggs, cabbage, and pickles stuffed in a pita topped with hummus and amba, a tangy mango pickle sauce. Orit took us to a souk in Akko, an outdoor marketplace where we met a local fisherman who chopped the heads off the fish he’d caught that morning and made us fresh ceviche with the bodies. Shakhar took us to a boutique winery and organic farm in the Golan Heights where we ate two platters of fresh cheeses and pita, drank a peppery red wine, and watched a baby goat struggle out of its mother’s womb and take its first steps. After that, Shakhar took us home to his family, where we met his kids and drank tea and looked out over the mountains in the dark night at the city of Bethlehem beneath us. Roi met us in Jerusalem, and we spent the morning sampling the diversity of the ancient city’s flavors, tasting things I’d never heard of before like Georgian khachapuri, a fluffy, cheesy bread with an egg yolk and butter pooled in the middle for dipping.

Over all these plates of food, we talked with our guides. While we perused the fresh vegetables in their crates at Carmel Market, Anat, a 32-year-old lesbian from the frenetic city of Tel Aviv, confessed that although her wife, their one-year-old daughter, and her career are testaments to how far Israel has come since the 1980s, violence is never far from her mind. She told us the story of Yishai Shlisel, a Haredi Jew who stabbed three marchers in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade in 2005, and how, three weeks after he was released from his ten-year prison sentence, he went back to the annual parade and stabbed six more. While we drank instant coffee with Shakhar, a middle-school history teacher who did tours on weekends, at the top of Mount Bental in the Golan Heights and looked out over the bountiful Syrian landscape, noting the tips of white mosques a town just 45 minutes from Damascus, he reminded us that Israelis and Palestinians “have a switch,” and that to live here, you must always have an exit plan. These were very different stories than the ones I’d drawn and pinned to our refrigerator. These were stories of perseverance, of raising children in the Middle East, of living with violence and fear, of questioning the pro-Israeli status quo, of recognizing that violence undergirds almost every part of ordinary life. These were the stories of real people, living, in 2018, stories that escaped the once-static Biblical landscape of my Sunday school drawings.

Roi, a recent college graduate who sported a fedora and a flannel shirt, was different. As we walked around Nachlaot, a trendy neighborhood known for its narrow cobblestone alleyways and global cuisines, he wanted us to see the “new” Jerusalem. The hip one — the up-and-coming urban center with its modern finger on the pulse of all the world’s food and culture trends. We went to Yehuda Market and drank California-style IPAs with a red-headed American man from Idaho; we drank coffee at a fair-trade coffeeshop where everyone had landscapes of tattoos and piercings across their bodies; and we ate at graffitied food stalls that served items like vegan empanadas with hummus on paper napkins. He lamented that although Tel Aviv has taken the title of the “vegan revolution” in the Middle East, the title rightfully belongs right here. Roi wasn’t wrong, of course; Jerusalem is beginning to rival Tel Aviv in plenty of ways. That’s the thing about Israel, sometimes — it can feel like peeling back the fibers of an orange, a fruit you’ve eaten a thousand times, and finding layers and layers you didn’t expect inside.

To give himself enough time to pick up his next tour group at the airport, Roi left us at the gates of the Old City in the afternoon. Though Jerusalem’s Old City can be accessed by any one of seven gates, we entered by way of the Jaffa Gates, the gate whose name in Arabic means “gate of the friend,” a reference to Abraham, “the beloved of God.” Built in the early 1500s by the Ottomans, the sand-colored stone gate looks like a medieval tower — with an L-shaped entryway, heavy, oversized metal doors, and soldiers with assault rifles standing at either side. We walked in silently, as people entering sacred spaces do. We passed, first, through the narrow alleyways of the Jewish quarter, dodging children in fresh-pressed uniforms running home from school; made our way through the Christian quarter, shooing away men outside tourist shops peddling wooden Bibles and plastic Christmas ornaments; and wound our way through the Muslim quarter, declining invitations to come inside from boys outside hookah shops and headscarf boutiques. Jewish pop music, Western Christian music, and Arabic music snaked through the old streets as one quarter led way to another. We walked the path of the Via Dolorosa and, though it was so crowded we could barely see over the tops of other peoples’ heads, waited in line to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Once inside, we beheld — for one very crowded moment — the two holiest sites in Christianity: the stones encased in glass upon which Jesus was crucified; and the site of the empty tomb where Jesus was once buried and, according to the stories, resurrected to God. As we looked upon these places, we tried to make sense of the women kneeling and praying in the front hall of the church where, a day a very long time ago, Mary Magdalene once knelt and anointed cloths to prepare Jesus’ crucified body for burial. These were the stories my sister and I once bent over construction paper to create.

Our Western Wall Tunnel Tour started at 3:30. For an hour and a half, we descended into a buried Jerusalem and walked through limestone streets in the dark, stepping on smooth cobblestones and touching the remnants of primitive stone columns and studying massive snake-like aqueducts that were once used for collecting water. This was how the ancient people of Jerusalem drank water and took baths. My mind wandered; in the darkness of the underground streets, I kept checking the time. At exactly 5:30 p.m. Israeli time, my sister would be revealing the gender of her child at home in Atlanta. The plan was that we would call my dad’s phone, which he would prop up on a table so Ryan and I could watch it unfold live from the Old City.

In the half-hour before the reveal, though, I had some work to do. Because the Western Wall is gender-partitioned, Ryan and David went to the left and Rachel and I went to the right. We rented two headscarves from an elderly Israeli woman sitting under an umbrella at a metal foldaway table and plunked some change into a wooden box. Agreeing to meet back in 20 minutes, we went our separate ways. At first, I wasn’t sure how to behave, so I watched the women around me. It was easy to tell that they came from all faiths, countries, and backgrounds — they were tall, short, fat, skinny, dark, light, Western, Eastern, wearing conservative dresses, wearing ripped jeans, praying in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and a hundred other languages. Some were pressed up against the wall, as if dancing with the old stones. Some were sobbing as they kneeled in front of it, their foreheads and hands pressed to the street beneath them. Some were crinkling up letters and prayers and tucking them into the cracks between the stones. Some simply sat in plastic chairs and journaled.

With 15 minutes to spare before the reveal, I settled into a seat, opened my paperback journal, weather-worn from just six days and nearly filled with the names of foods and chefs, and creased it open to a fresh page. I uncapped my pen and poised the tip over the first line. What do you say to someone you’ve never met before? Someone who is the size of a mango? Someone whose very existence lies inside my sister’s belly, someone who has fingers and toes, eyelids and eyelashes, teeth and bones, someone who can yawn and stretch and make faces but who is still inside of someone else? Someone who is about to take on a gender for the rest of its life?

I started the letter twice. The first time it felt forced, like scribbling a note in a birthday card to a distant relative that you have to get in the mail by the end of the day. I tore it out and crumpled it up. I tried again. Today, we pray for the health and happiness of your little bundle of joy? I started a third time, simply addressing the piece of paper to my sister and her husband. Today, we pray for a happy and healthy birth, a beautiful childhood, and a long, meaningful life. Not great, not terrible, as words often are.

I signed and dated it, tore it out of my notebook, and folded it up until it was small enough that I could cram it into an available crevice among the other prayers. Some of the crevices were so crowded that letters had started falling out and pooling at the base of the wall, so I pressed mine between other letters and hoped it wouldn’t pop out. Over a million prayers, Roi told us earlier that day, are placed in the crevices of the wall each year. Every six months, a Jewish rabbi named Shmuel Rabinowitz and his team go out in the early morning, collect half a million prayers, and bury them in the nearby Mount of Olives, where they will safely disintegrate into the soil and forever become part of the land. I liked thinking that I would tell my niece or nephew this one day, that my first letter to them is intimately woven into the arid land of Israel, the land we’d been imagining since our own childhoods in the lush suburbs of Atlanta.

Two minutes before the reveal, I met Ryan in the plaza, and we sat down on a bench facing the Western Wall and called home using the video camera on my phone. When my dad picked up, I could see that the party set-up was exquisite — cupcakes from a boutique bakery with pink and blue swirls on top, a “mom-osa” table with sparking juices and champagne, glittery pink and baby blue streamers strung up around the dining room, a gender voting booth for people to cast their guesses, a guest list topping thirty of the closest friends and family, an envelope from the doctor’s office. The only person who knew the contents of the envelope was my sister’s friend Torri, who would reveal the gender to my sister in a way she hadn’t yet revealed to anyone. This is how milestones happen in the South, by the way — things are rarely done without cupcakes and champagne.

From Jerusalem, home looked eerily distant, like a scene from a movie where the film is slightly scratched and discolored to invoke a sense of traveling backwards into time and space. I waved to my parents, to my sister’s husband’s parents, to friends of theirs I’d met and friends I hadn’t. My sister told everyone that her sister was calling from the Wailing Wall and guests in sundresses and tuxedos crowded their faces around the video. I smiled into the camera and circled around the plaza so everyone could see the tall black hats and the men with beards and the women with headscarves and the high stone wall, but I felt immensely sad as I panned the camera around, a loneliness deep in my stomach. I didn’t want to be at the Wailing Wall anymore; I wanted to be at home with our family, and this alarmed me. I have never wanted to be at home instead of traveling before, not for anything. A few tears sprung up at the corners of my eyes; I was suddenly overcome with emotion in a way that felt unfamiliar and strange. Whether it was because I was in the holiest place for three of the world’s great religions or because of something else, I didn’t know.

And then something else happened.

From a lifetime of reading newspapers, I’ve noticed that writers retreat into the passive when something inexplicable happens. It’s a manageable way to skirt the burdens of placing responsibility, of actors doing actions, of explaining something inexplicable. “Portions of the Old City were closed down following the attack,” wrote the reporter for The Times of Israel. “The attacker was quickly shot dead at the scene by an Israeli police officer,” wrote the reporter for the BBC. Man was stabbed. City was closed. Attacker was shot. It’s as if our language, so impractically tied to subjects and verbs and actions, sometimes needs a way to steer itself around something we have trouble talking about. Miscarriage has occurred. How would we read our lives differently if we treated our tragedies like the agents we are in this world? A father of two stabbed a security guard. Teenage soldiers put up metal barricades and shut down the Old City. Police shot the attacker to death. Would we be more willing to accept our actions?

It did not feel passive to us, standing in a small courtyard in an ancient city we knew is so often devastated by violence and misunderstanding. It did not feel passive that, within a few minutes, we were barricaded in by 18-year-old soldiers with assault rifles and that we did not know who had lived and who had died. It did not feel passive to us, the man next to us scrolling through Twitter and muttering “something’s happened, something’s happened,” or Ryan’s hand on my shoulder to let me know that he was still there. The half-hour we stood there felt like a stretched-out sequence in a movie, as if the director wanted to slow down the footage to make us see the weight of things. One. Two. Impenetrable silence and thousands of hushed voices. Three. A man, who will soon be labeled a terrorist, is dead, and people are screaming, a band of police pull up on motorcycles with flashing red lights and block all exits, and a group of people back in Atlanta crack open their unmarked spray cans and start dousing my sister and her husband with confetti, the color, a baby blue, lets the world know that she is having a little boy.

It did not feel passive to us, the day I nearly fell over running to Ryan’s office to tell him that the doctors called and confirmed that the test was positive. It did not feel passive to us, Ryan sitting next to me in a cold metal chair in the hospital and clasping my left hand as the doctor told us what to expect. It did not feel passive to me, lying on the paper sheet on the cold, sterile table, the nurse reciting calming words about how it will be different next time. It felt sad, lonely, violent. We sat on the couch for a few days, not knowing what to do with ourselves.

In Jerusalem that day, I did not know what to do either. On one end of the world, my family celebrated a new life. On another end of the world, I pulled my phone closer and cupped my hand over the mouthpiece as a group of medics pushed a specially-designed buggy down the steps from the Muslim Quarter toward us, a young Israeli father’s injured body on top, rolling over cobblestone streets and up into a wailing ambulance. While we waited in stunned silence, hundreds of young Israeli soldiers clumped together in front of the Western Wall, their arms dangled around each other, their rifles slung over their chests, their phones out, taking selfies. Because of my angle toward the wall and away from the plaza, my family didn’t see what was happening. I was the one watching them. They will never know.

In the midst of the flashing lights, ambulance sirens, and the roar of motorcycles unfolding around me, I watched cans of confetti go dry. “Did you see? Could you see?” my mom asked. “Can you believe it? It’s so exciting!” my dad said. A sea of other faces, chatter I can’t hear, and a video stream that is suddenly failing. The screen starts crackling and as we’re waving goodbye to each other, the connection goes dead. There is no more Wi-Fi. It is at this point that we know a terrorist has stabbed a security guard on the steps just behind us, the ones leading away from the Muslim Quarter and into the plaza. We also know the terrorist is dead and that the police have the scene under control. It will be a while until we can leave.

Ryan and I don’t say much in-between; we hold each other tightly and think about the bending, fleeting nature of our lives. I think about childhood, about setting the Biblical women free with my crayons. An hour later, large Israeli men remove the barricades, and we are finally free to go as the sun starts to settle behind the Temple Mount, casting a warm, pink glow over ancient Jerusalem. A loudspeaker clicks on. Right on cue, at 7:30 in the evening, a hauntingly beautiful voice starts singing the Muslim call to prayer, a sound emanating from the mosque that carries and settles, effortlessly, over the silent salmon-colored hills of Jerusalem. Here, it is just another day, just another sunset. The young soldiers will go home to their apartments or their parents and Jerusalem will eventually stop trending on Twitter. We will board a plane back to Miami at midnight, and my sister will post her news on social media.

A few days after I got home from Israel, I typed “stabbing in Jeru — ” into Google at least six times before I finally allowed myself to look at the search results. Violence in Jerusalem is easy to find; it is always at the top of the newsfeed. What I found was what I expected, somehow, to find. Three days after the stabbing, reports from The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post revealed that a man named Adiel Kolman died from wounds in the hospital, leaving behind his wife and four young children. He was just 32 years old — and from the photos the press released, I could tell he had been a dad whose smile could light up a room, the kind where the eyes always crinkle up at the sides. His four young children were all under the age of six. The man who stabbed him was named Abd al-Rahman Fadel, a Palestinian man who, in his death, left behind his own beloved wife and his two young children. He was 28 years old, a resident of Aqraba, a small village near the West Bank city of Nablus. No one knows why he was in Jerusalem that day or why he took out that knife. Like so many families left behind in Israel, these mothers and children will be bearing the burden of that fateful moment for the rest of their lives.

As for me, I don’t think about the baby I lost every day anymore, like I did in the months leading up to Israel. Six months later, my body still hasn’t righted itself; I’ve gone through a lot of testing and am scared about my own fertility journey. Ryan and I have grown closer, and we talk more now about our future together as parents and as writers and travelers. But now, I can say out loud, like I couldn’t before, that I — me, Kristin, intrepid travel writer, globetrotter extraordinaire, the girl who once declared that she would rather fill up passports than be a mom — had a miscarriage. And it changed something in me. I’m thinking about growing up, about the gaps between adulthood and motherhood, about how quickly life comes and goes, about the kind of aunt I want to be to a child who might one day go to Jerusalem, stand where I stood, and imagine me placing a prayer for a long, beautiful life into the cracks of the most sacred wall in the world.

When I think about these things, I find myself dreaming of future travels. But sometimes, in the quiet of the night, I imagine another reality, too, the sketch of a girl with a carrier on her back, carrying a wiggling someone she can’t yet imagine, tiny feet and arms dangling out, discovering the world with her, too. •

All illustrations by Isabella Akhtarshenas with images from Unsplash.