We went to Bethlehem yesterday.
It was a long trip. Considering that Bethlehem is just some 25 km away, the one hour drive seems excessive. It's not that the roads are bad -- although those switchbacks are hair-raising -- it's that the Palestinian busses have to drive all the way around Jerusalem. Imagine Ramallah to the north of Jerusalem, and Bethlehem due south of it. Jerusalem is big but luckily, Ma'ale Adumim is not (yet) incorporated into the walled section, so it's an hour of driving when it should be half an hour. On the other hand, you won't get into rush hour traffic, so there's that.
Bethlehem is strange. The first big building you'll see on Manger Square is the Bethlehem Peace Center, which has a big banner on it that says, "Return is our right and our destiny." Inside, you'll find a bookstore with political posters and lots of Pro-Palestinian literature. As sympathetic as I am to the Palestinian cause, I don't think you can make peace all by yourself. There's always two sides to the story, and so far, we're only seeing one side. As Doug says, we need to spend some time in Israel to get a balanced picture. The Bethlehem Peace Center definitely does not do "balanced".
That said, I discovered a team of photographers based in Bethlehem - Andrea and Magda. Check out their work if you have a few minutes.
I'm of two minds about the Peace Center but their cafe is nice. While socialist in style and decor, the food is really yummy, and the kids fell in love with their lemonade with mint -- after initial confusion about green lemonade and the spearminty taste.
It was a very hot day, and the sun was scorching. What with getting up a bit later than normal, the long drive, and having lunch first thing upon arrival, we ended up walking around in the hot noon sun which was a bad idea. The kids were grumpy and complained about the heat and the dazzling brightness, so we turned to the Church of Nativity to cool off a bit. Unfortunately, our weekend trips always coincide with large groups of tourists milling around. The line that formed in front of the Grotto of Nativity was so long, and our kids were so grumpy, that we chose to forego that. We came close enough to Jesus' place of birth, we decided, and who knows whether it was really right there, and not maybe over here.
The church itself is odd - both old and new, a rambling expanse with lots of incense burners dangling from the ceiling, some lovely mosaics, and various different kinds of priests and monks. It's a veritable melting pot of Christianity, with Armenians, Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and others all right next to each other. I like that. There is a lovely cloister, complete with St. Hieronymous statue, and not many of the tourists go there, so it's calm and green and quiet.
What I really, really liked is the entrance to the church. Now, this is the big thing, right? Here, we are led to believe, Jesus was born and even if you don't go for the Son-of-God thing, you have to admit that Jesus got a lot of things very right. So it's a cool place to go to, and thousands of tourists are going every single year -- and they all enter the church bowed down. Because, you see, the main entrance is not a giant gate or double-door or mighty opening in a wall. It's a tiny door, just big enough for a kid, and anybody over the age of 10 has to bow deeply to fit through. That's why it is called the Door of Humility, and I can't tell you much this pleases me. I find this very appropriate in a land where you find so many different religions who all think they got it right. A bit of humility is really a good thing.
Of course, the story behind the door is rather prosaic. There used to be two more bigger entrances which were walled up, and the present entrance was made smaller to prevent horsemen from just whisking through. It's still impressive, this small hole in the wall of a big, big church, and one tourist after another bowing through.
We went to the Milk Grotto afterwards. The story goes that as Mary and Joseph fled Herod's soldiers, they stopped in this grotto so that Mary could nurse baby Jesus. A drop of milk spilled on the red rocks and turned them white. Today, it's a popular destination for new mothers and women trying to get pregnant - it's said that if you mix the white chalk with your food, or simply touch the white rock, you will get pregnant and/or never have lactation problems again. There are letters and pictures sent from grateful mothers from around the world attesting to the potency of the white rock. Well, if it works for them. Personally, I'd never before seen an icon with a breastfeeding Mary complete with exposed breast, and that totally worked for me.
There have been churches and buildings over and around the grotto from early on. The Franciscans then built a church over the grotto in the 1870s and a very modern church was added in 2007, complete with sweeping underground walkways that connect the modern with the old parts. It's rather serene and also quite empty -- I suppose the tourist groups skip the grotto. Or maybe we were just lucky.
On our way back we stopped at one of the many olive wood "factories" that produce an endless supply of Christmas ornaments for the rest of the world. The owner is a shrewd and sweet guy whom I thought to be gay, although Doug said he didn't pick up on that. For me, being a gay Palestinian in Bethlehem pretty much defines the word "trouble", so we made all our gift purchases in his shop. We climbed the steps to the rooftop to have a breathtaking view over Bethlehem, all the way to Jerusalem, and watched the three workers produce masses of carvings in the little workshop.
Our kids were delighted by the wood scraps they got for free, and with the Angry Bird toys...
Oh, I forgot to tell you about the Angry Bird toys.
See, ice cream is a standard bribe that Doug and I employ to get our kids to look at boring old ruins. Almost every ice cream shop we have passed so far had ads for "Angry Birds Ice Cream" -- and failed to deliver. As my kids are obsessed with Angry Birds, this was a constant source of woe and misery. But in Bethlehem, on Milk Grotto Street, there is a little shop that actually has Angry Birds ice cream. The kids were beside themselves with joy. Imagine their glee when they discovered that each ice cream wrapper also contained a tiny Angry Birds pencil topper. The happiness this evoked was undescribable. It's as if they never had a toy ever in their lives before.
Anyway. Angry Birds and olive wood scraps make great companions, in case you were wondering. And while the parents come away from Bethlehem with impressions of tiny doors and Palestinian bookshops, the kids will always remember their Angry Bird toys. In fact, as Jacob asked me today, can we please go back to the place where Jesus was born? Because in that one street, there is that one shop...