Thursday, May 24, 2007

Normal life

Because of recent violence in the Gaza Strip, I hesitated about going to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

Why would you want to go there anyway? Because a number of famous sites – including the Dead Sea, Masada and Bethlehem – lie in those lands.

I kept running into the same taxi driver, a Palestinian Christian named Avi, who kept asking me why I didn’t want to go to Bethlehem. Finally, I gave in.

It turns out that Bethlehem is only a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem hotel. And that these days, at least, getting there is a simple matter.

For $40, I could have booked a half-day bus tour to Bethlehem. Time-pressed, I went with Avi, who drove me to a souvenir shop in Bethlehem whose driver drove me to the Church where a guide was waiting. (Yes, it’s the full employment act, but Bethlehem doesn’t have a lot of tourists these days, and you can’t begrudge them for trying to make ends meet.)

We dashed beneath the low door of the Church of the Nativity and into the crypt beneath the alter, deemed the birthplace of Jesus, and the one-time manager where he was laid just a few steps away. It was about to close for morning prayers, and a few minutes later, as we wandered through the sanctuary we could hear nuns singing from below.

The church itself was founded in the 4th Century but burned, rebuilt and expanded over the centuries. The main sanctuary – shared by Armenians and Greek Orthodox – is an open soaring space over exposed wooden beams. Remnants of mosaic murals dot the clerestory walls, depicting stories from the life of Jesus.

The Roman Catholic sanctuary is newer, only 150 years, a pretty space with vaulted spaces. When you watch Christmas Day services on television, you are here, in this Catholic sanctuary, in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity.


Later in the day I met up with Lin Arison, whose late husband, Ted, was an Israeli. After Ted retired as chairman of Carnival Cruise Line, the company he founded, the couple moved to Tel Aviv, and Lin has split time between Israel and the U.S. since his death in 1999.

We drove around Tel Aviv, by the lively beach whose chattahoochee sidewalks recall Rio de Janeiro, and stopped off in a cozy Soho-like cafĂ© neighborhood called Neve Tzedek. Late-day traffic was like it is everywhere – dreadful. The whole experience feels decidedly normal – unlike what you expect after seeing news reports.

“That’s what everyone who comes here says,’’ said Lin.

That’s not to say that bad things can’t happen here. A year ago, a Fort Lauderdale teenager visiting here with his parents died from injuries sustained in a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant.

But on the average day, in an average neighborhood, life here is vibrant and surprisingly comfortable. Says Arison: "If I change one thing I would normally do, the terrorists win.''

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