Saturday, December 17, 2011

Modern Day Bethlehem and the Christmas Story

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

What a beautiful scene this hymn describes - a small, quiet, peaceful town  hosts the birth of Jesus.  In the Bible, God’s physical presence on earth begins quietly.  Yet, the reality of Bethlehem today plays out in the rough and tumble  politics of the area.

Bethlehem is really a suburb of Jerusalem - a mere five miles separates them.  It hosts the largest population of Christians in Israel and has traditionally been a required stop for pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Until 2006, this was an easy bus or taxi ride away.  Because Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, excursions became more complicated when Israel built a security wall to protect Jerusalem from terrorists.  Bethlehem is now separated from her neighbor by a 26 foot tall concrete fence, 14 feet taller than the Berlin Wall.    Israel defends the necessity of this partition as it has significantly reduced bombings and deaths.  Bethlehem argues the wall has separated families and friends, hurt commuting workers and  frightened away tourists.

Identification machine for fingerprints

Our day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem began with a taxi ride to the Security Wall.  The Jordanian driver (married to a Palestinian woman) phoned his contact on the other side of the wall to be sure we would be met.  We walked down a long, narrow passageway  into a metal building. Those ahead of us had to place their hands on a fingerprint pad for verification.  But  Israeli checkpoint guards didn’t even inspect our passports and waved us through.  After another long, winding walk, we exited to a crowd of taxi drivers.  Fortunately, Adnun, our guide, spotted us.

The short drive into Bethlehem followed the Security Wall,  filled on this side with graffiti and anti-Israel comments.  Adnun pointed out Bethlehem University which is financed by the United States and other European Countries.   Their police are also trained by U.S. forces.  Yet, he claimed tourist numbers are down due in part to our State Department’s warning against travel in the West Bank. As a Christian working in the tourist industry, Adnun was frustrated by this.  He had kind words for “The Lonely Planet” travel guidebook who strongly encourages readers to base their stay in quiet Bethlehem rather than the more expensive Jerusalem.

We visited The Church of the Nativity, where Palm Sunday services were being celebrated by the Orthodox Church, followed by the Armenians, and then Roman Catholics.  A new placard was hung each time the service changed.  Thanks to our guide’s persuasive ability and our claim to speak Spanish, we were allowed into the small grotto below the church for a celebration of a Spanish Mass. This is sacred territory, where it is believed Jesus was born - not in a stable but a cave.  While we waited, a tearful, blind woman was led by a family member to reverently touch  a silver star on the marble floor, indicating holy ground below.

Also in the Christmas story are shepherds in the field watching their sheep at night.  In that time, many shepherds lived in caves that were large enough even for their flocks to stay at night. At the “Shepherd’s Field YMCA”,  located at the edge of Bethlehem, a cave typical of the time of Jesus has been preserved in its rural setting..  We had to honk outside the gate to be allowed in, the only visitors that day.  The cave was spacious, cool, and surprisingly comfortable.  And it was here, away from the crowds of the Church of the Nativity, the politics of the Security Wall, and the ever present traffic, that the air of 2000 years ago could be breathed and the story imagined. It was a quiet moment when Bethlehem was as still as in the carol we sing and as peaceful as we can only hope for the entire region.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Brooklyn, New York - An Emerging Travel Destination With Much to Do

Pop quiz time.  Which of the five boroughs of New York has the most residents? Which claims that one out of every six Americans can trace an ancestor back to it?  And which borough would be the 4th largest city in the country if it were an independent city?  The answer is Brooklyn.  At a population of 2.5 million, it is twice as big as Dallas.  Yet, few visitors venture past the East River to this community rich in architecture, ethnic cultures and history.  We had an opportunity to explore it during a Thanksgiving visit to our son’s new residence.

Life long Brooklyn resident, “Big Rick” Kadlub, guided us the first day on a walking tour.  He has watched real estate prices soar in recent years by those looking for a better bargain than in neighboring Manhattan.  Thanks to a four story zoning limit, much of Brooklyn feels like a neighborhood and is being rediscovered. The Park Slope area is an example.  In the 1950's it was an enclave for Italians and Irish, filled with Latinos and African Americans in the 60's. was joined by artists in the 70's and discovered by young professionals in the 90's.  New families now fill the beautiful brownstones and frequent the many restaurants.  Big Rick shook his head in wonder as hundreds of residents stream out of nearby subway stops in late afternoon - a stark contrast to the trickle of commuters in the past.

While most Americans know of Central Park, few are aware of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, designed by the same Frederick Olmstead.  In fact, many consider Prospect Park superior to its Manhattan cousin and I have to agree.  Six hundred acres of forest provides strolling paths, the largest park meadow in the country, Brooklyn’s only lake, a zoo, birding opportunities, and an outdoor ice rink.  Next door are the Botanical Gardens,  Art Deco public library filled with books in 70 languages, and the Brooklyn Art Museum, a near replica of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that houses the first feminist gallery and its famous Dinner Party installation by Judy Chicago.

On our second day, a 20 minute subway ride took us to the grandfather of all amusement parks, Coney Island.  The subway exit opens directly across from “Nathan’s World Famous Frankfurters since 1916", a required stop even though it was only 10 a.m.  We joined Al Capone, Cary Grant, Jacqueline Kennedy, Winston Churchill and the King and Queen of England as samplers of these surprisingly good hot dogs.  Across the street was the equally famous amusement park, sadly closed for the season.

The boardwalk along the Atlantic was even better than I had hoped for.  We merged with a leisurely crowd of mostly elderly pensioners strolling down the well-maintained wooden walk.  The clean beach was almost empty but could clearly hold the masses in the summer.  As we approached Brighton Beach, a Russian immigrant stopped to chat and tell us how much he loved America.  Originally built as an exclusive resort for the wealthy in 1909, Brighton Beach has most recently become the largest Russian community in New York.  Russian restaurants lined the beach and along Brighton Beach Avenue.  Bilingual signs advertised child care and dental offices. And a liquor store with a lit neon hammer and sickle boasted of many kinds of vodka.  We enjoyed a lunch of traditional Russian fare such as pelmenis and varkenikis.

On the last morning,  we walked with our one year old grandson across the 128 year old  Brooklyn Bridge and introduced him to the Manhattan skyline.  Through the weblike cables, the Statue of Liberty beckoned.  And on the return walk,  Brooklyn spread across the horizon.  Now no longer just one of the boroughs, Brooklyn had proved itself a worthy travel destination with much more to be discovered.  I look forward to it.

      Tour Guide, Richard Kadlub - A Tour Grows in Brooklyn, 212-209-3370

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