In November of 2017 I travelled to Israel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but a strange thing happened. Being bi-polar 2, I was extra buzzed and manic, though cool and clean in the Lord.
Yes, I was manic, that I’ll easily admit; travel always has that effect on me, ever since we escaped from Hungary in the 1956 Revolution. All I can do is just hold on and enjoy the ride and keep from getting too outrageous.
Our flight was from Kennedy, at the miserable hour of midnight, by which time I was already tired and wound. The Israeli security is strange but effective. Young sharp agents look you over, talk to you, read you, no rush, just precision, hours before you ever step on a plane.
Finally we’re packed like sardines into an aging 747. Orthodox Jews fill the plane; some are pleasant and polite while others are rude, bitter, and acerbic. Tired and already wound up with the excitement of travel, and packed into the crowded plane like that made it impossible to sleep. And when I tried to occupy myself with diversions like TV or movies, I found that many things on the old plane simply didn’t work.
Finally, 11 and a half hours later, we landed in Tel Aviv. At the airport there were children everywhere and they greeted us with little “welcome to Israel” signs and flowers. No abortion in Israel, I thought, hoped, and I had a strange poignant feeling that I had come home.
We got on a bus and met our tour guide and driver, Nadir and Mohamed, a Palestinian Christian and a Muslim, respectively. As we drove through Tel Aviv heading for Bethlehem, Nadir spoke passionately about his Christian faith, his love for Palestine, and his aversion to Israel. It was strange, but many people here are the enemies of my genetic ancestors, the Jews, yet fervent disciples of my Christian faith. As a Hebrew Catholic, I found myself suspended between two prevailing, intractable states of mind.
There’s such tension in this place it’s incendiary, ready to flare up at any time. As the bus left the airport, I felt a surge of pride for my people, having suffered horrendous carnage in Europe, emigrating to the Promised Land, and turning a desert into a paradise.
Our first stop was the Angel Hotel in Bethlehem, an eerie place–head quarters for some Palestinian movement against Israel, the vibes made me almost certain of it. There was a lady there from the company that ran our tour, and when she introduced herself intimated that she was not only there as a representative of the tour company but in the capacity of diplomacy as well–tacitly, pro-Palestine.
It was early evening when we arrived and by the time we got everything squared away with our rooms it was time for sleep. But I was so wound up from excitement and around 24 hours of sleepless travel, I couldn’t sleep. So I went down to the bar and began a conversation with the bartender, a suspicious young Palestinian.
Exhausted and concerned about the incendiary tension in the air, I asked the bartender to fill me in on the real deal of what’s going on.
“You sure you want to know?” he answered.
“Yes,” I told him, and related my entire Hebrew/Catholic background.
When he learned I was of Jewish descent it was like an invisible icy wall had been erected between us, and he basically told me America was the chief sponsor of terrorism by supporting Israel, and that the second biggest sponsor of terrorism was Israel itself.
“I never heard that,” I re[plied, and his answer was that basically we in America were blind to the truth.
When I brought up terrorism, he claimed it was non-existent:
“Israel and America are the terrorists; we are merely an occupied country fighting for our existence,” he claimed.
After this, he erected an icy wall between us which stood for the rest of my stay.
I returned to my room and finally got some sleep, got up in a few hours at 4 and went for a walk at pre-dawn. Dogs were barking;; people or Iman(s) chanted prayers electronically amplified all over the city. Eerie!
Some garbage men saw me and made some negative comments; I was scared and did not feel safe.
Later that day we visited The Church of the Nativity with a Mass especially for us. Basically this church is built over a cave where Christ was born. The priest’s message was a sweet chant: “Do not be afraid; be full of joy.”
Next we went to get baptized in the Jordan, a small, stream-like river where we saw it, with horrendously annoying black flies which bite you constantly.
Next after riding up and down the hills of Jerusalem, a city perched on the edge of desert if you get to know her well,, we arrived at run-down Jericho, the oldest city in the world.
Everywhere we went were Palestinean vendors, some rude and offensive; one even harassed a nun traveling with us, trying in vain to sell her a pair of Rosary beads. He followed her refusing to take no for an answer:
“I’m Catholic too,” he chanted, “see Sister how beautiful, $10, cheap for you; I’m Catholic too.”
And he wouldn’t desist, following her, annoying her. I even intervened told him to back off, but to no avail. Finally a cop came and spoke the annoying peddler off.
We had the option, for a price, to visit a Palestinean family and have dinner with them. Our family was a well-to-do one headed by a successful carpenter from Bethlehem. They were Christians and very pleasant.
The father told us that there was no future in Palestine, and that he wants to join his son in the United States. He also told me something I’ll never forget: he claimed it was good that Jews were the prominent power in Israel, because if it were the Palestineans, there’d be no Jews left alive.
It was strange being in Palestine; they play on your sympathies using the “occupied” card and/or the Christian card, and I being naïve, fell for both. I got so brainwashed that after a few days I began telling people that I came to Palestine/Israel a Jew and became a Palestinean, falling for the Jewish oppressor story like many liberal Jews in the U.S.
Next we visited The Milk Grotto where we had an 8am Mass just for us. It was a long walk from where our bus parked and I was afraid I couldn’t make the walk due to my Parkinson’s, but I did, as I did everywhere, meeting every challenge and succeeding, in the Lord!
Seeing Jericho was weird, the oldest city in the world which is now a dump! Run down and semi-abandoned, it’s really sad. Saw a camel there for the first time, and enjoyed eating a parmagranite so juicy and appropriate for the dessert.
After leaving Jericho we stopped somewhere in the beautiful, huge Armageddon Valley where many great battles were fought in the past. It was a desert rest-stop restaurant of some sorts and the food was exceptionally good. After I ate I went outside and tried to feel the vibes of Armageddon. As I surveyed the huge expanse of the valley, I imagined huge war machines and thousands of soldiers in the terrible prophecy concerning the end of the world. What did I feel? What did I imagine?
The next day we drove to the Hill Country, the Church of the Visitation, Emmaus and finally Nazareth. The Church of the Visitation was in the beautiful green Hill Country and required a long walk up a long hill. I was intimidated due to my Parkinson’s, and even though I limped, I soon darted up and down that hill like a mountain goat due to my superb physical condition for 69. A life-time of sports, swimming, surfing, weights and martial arts have given me an advantage despite the misery of Parkinson’s.
Nazareth is much larger than I imagined, a booming modern little city, quite Westernized with lots of stores and shops and buses, trucks, and cars dotting the landscape. I bought 20 rosaries to bring back home for friends. I also spent about $1500 on gifts for family and friends. The prevailing attitude in the stores is as tourists with money, how are you going to help the Palestinean cause, and I got sucked right in. We visited two stores, one in Nazareth and one in Jerusalem. Our tour guide was the connection with the stores and encouraged us to shop. After spending $1500 in Nazareth, I found a $10, 000 Persian rug in the Jerusalem store. The salesman got excited and pressured me, so I told him I’d call my wife in the morning. The same salesman got excited when I showed interest in a $5,000 ancient coin; again I got out of it by claiming I’d call the wife in the morning. When I got a hold of my wife she adamantly told me to repeat to myself 100 times: I’m a sucker; I’m a sucker.
Father Emmett was the priest who accompanied us on our pilgrimage. For some reason, I got spiritually overwhelmed at one of the many beautiful churches we visited, and I had a strong urge to receive Confession, so Father heard my Confession as we walked back to the bus on a busy street in Nazareth. And I’ll never forget what he said:
“I’m going to give you absolution for all the sins you have ever committed your whole life.”
Our next adventure was driving to Tiberius, the sea of Galilee, where we arrived at evening, after a long bus ride, exhausted and ready for bed.
All wired up again I didn’t feel like sleeping so I asked Evelyn, an attrctive widow my age, if she’d have a drink with me at the bar. She acquiesced and I got a beer and a shot of tequila. She had soda and shortly went to bed and I remained and had two more shots of tequila with my beer.
Finally I went to my room, fully cognizant of the fact that I can no longer have a beer and three shots of tequila at 69 with Parkinson’s. No, no, no, no more. The Lord gave me courage but enough is enough. I finally got some sleep, woke up early at dawn and walked downstairs to find some coffee. Once again there was an armed guard at the entrance of our hotel, and he made me some coffee which I drank thankfully and headed out down to the Sea of Galilee into the pink rosy dawn.
I said the Rosary, The Divine Mercy Chaplet and prayed and began doing my Kung Fu/Tai Chi exercises, praising God, thankful to be alive. On my way back to the hotel, a herd of small horses came up to the kitchen with me and went in, really odd, about 7 of them, just walking around freely.
Later that day, a beautiful summer-like day around 80 degrees in November, we went out on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilae. It was great, beautiful and surreal, where Christ fished, walked, taught, and spent time with the apostles. The Sea itself was calm, serene, and sunny. The fishermen were jovial and kind, and had interesting religious articles pertaining to our Christian tradition.
We left Tiberius and drove to Jerusalem–a desert city set on hills–through the desert, and after a few hours on a desert highway, stopped at a gas station. It was strange, with a camel tied to a post and a large Muslim prayer tower across the street. Yep, we were in the Middle east. Finally at evening again, we arrived at our destination, the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem
The Olive Tree is a large hotel and very busy, an international, sophisticated place with constant activity day/night, also with an armed guard at the door. Their food was sumptuous but some of the staff were not kosher, like a young Palestinean who mocked me for no good reason beside my existence, and in so doing, wanting to show off to his friend.
I was only slightly angry, feeling rather sorry for the entire situation; was it because I was an American, or a Jew, funny-looking–whatever, disrespectful bad vibes for no reason. Later during our stay there I saw the same young man in a verbal confrontation with another hotel employee, and then when it was time to leave early in the morning for the Tel Aviv Airport, it was the same young Palestinean who had to sadly load all our suitcases(about 40) into the belly of our bus.
During our three-day stay at the Olive Tree Hotel I would go out at dawn to pray and exercise as I did in Bethlehem. The same Islamic custom of amplified dawn prayers met me though I felt a bit safer in here. Everywhere I walked I saw orthodox men dressed in their somber black engulfed in their grey intolerant obnoxious attitudes, quite sad really.
We visited the Garden of Gethsemane which turned out to be remarkably smaller than I expected, with huge crowds everywhere and a tree dating back before the time of Christ, but the most exciting part of Jerusalem was the old city of David with its Southern Wall Excavations, Teaching Steps, Pool of Bethesda, Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
We arrived at the Southern Wall Excavations in the morning; a film crew was already assembled by the time we arrived. Then Nader our guide said he had a surprise for us which turned out to be nothing short of incredible:
As a few of us stood on one of the steps, a large flat rock about 7×7 ft. Then Nadir announced his surprise:
“They are almost positive that Christ stood on the rock you’re standing on, teaching, preaching,” he said, at which point I fell to my knees and began kissing the rock and several others of our crew followed. It was one of the most incredible things that has ever happened to me.
Next we visited the Western Wall, commonly known as the “wailing wall,” though observant Jews are quick to point out that “we’re not wailing; we’re praying!” It was an incredible scene, hundreds of people, mostly Jews in prayer shawls, praying, singing, some with amplified music, tables set up for religious prayer books, everyone, no matter who, given a required white yamika before approaching the wall, the wall itself beaming a radical spiritual dynamic reverberating in my Jewish soul. Intense!
Leaving the Western Wall I found myself in some kind of museum containing a tomb, the tomb of David I believe. Suddenly a Palestinian man appeared from behind a screen and said:
“Sir I can see you are a righteous man so I’m going to offer you a holy proposition! I am going to offer holy prayers for you and your family at the tomb right here of David the warrior King.”
Then he began praying and when he stopped I thanked him and was about to leave, but he began asking me for a holy contribution. I gave him a $5 bill which he considered an insult. After contending with him a bit more,I realized my group had disappeared in the tremendous crowds and I had been left behind.
I stayed calm; I had money, and I knew the name of my hotel and figured I’d get back somehow. I walked down the hill from the Southern Wall to where I remembered the busses had come in, asking young Israeli soldiers with machine guns about finding my bus or getting a taxi. The soldiers were rude and unfriendly. Finally I got a taxi and beat our bus home, greeting it when it pulled in as I sat outside drinking beer and tequila. They were very glad to see me.
Next was the Via Dolorosa, the five-miles, 10, 000 steps Christ walked carrying His cross to Calvary, an inclined, rugged stone road ending at Calvary Hill. I was concerned I couldn’t make the walk due my Parkinson’s, but my heart wouldn’t listen to logic and I decided to trek up the path anyway. It certainly wasn’t easy but I made it! Praise God! And all 10, 000 steps I kept thinking of our Lord, ripped to shreds from the scourging with leather, bits of bone and metal, thorns stuck into His head, struggling with His heavy cross laden with the ominous weight of our sins, constantly falling, never complaining but still proclaiming:
“…weep for yourselves Jerusalem, but not for me…”
The last thing we saw was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, truly incredible, supposedly built upon the site of Christ’s death, it was an awesome building crowded with tourists, but the most incredible thing was actually being able to go into Christ’s tomb, where he lay dead and from which he resurrected. Awesome! Was it really the exact place and the exact tomb? Who knows? Didn’t matter: implication was everything.
Travelling like this was an emotional joyride, and you make friends with people in a special way. Such was the case with Tito, my Philipino brother from Queens. He was down with the city and understood the inner city and where I was coming from, and we really got along and had fun.
The flight home was just as miserable as the flight there, perhaps a little less so since it was shorter by about an hour. Once again we left late and once again sleep in the sardine seat was for me, impossible. We experienced some moderate turbulence where the big plane was bouncing up and down riding the rough waves of air, but I was too filled with the Spirit to be afraid. By the time we got back to the church we departed from, I was aglow with Love from the beauty and splendor we had experienced, and I knew I’d carry the memories of the trip with me all my life.