I arrived in Israel on Saturday after sundown, which is good as nearly everything shuts down during Shabbat. I will get to experience that come Friday at sundown. I've been told that I need to catch the bus out of Jerusalem by 4:00 PM. I'd like to try to visit the Old City, so I'll have to get there early Friday morning. Busses do not run during Shabbat. In fact, I think they have only one working elevator here during Shabbat (unless it's called the Shabbat elevator to reserve it for observant Jews). BTW, the doors to every guest room here have a mezuzah. This is a case that holds a copy of the shema and is attached on the doorposts of the homes of observant Jews. I'm actually hoping to get one before I leave.
I was able to get to Bethlehem just barely yesterday. I missed the 9:10 shuttle, so I had to take a taxi to get there on time for Mass at St. Catherine's Church of the Nativity. If you make the trip here, make sure to get advice on haggling with taxi drivers. The concierge here at David Intercontinental recommended to always use the meter. However, sometimes you have no option but to negotiate. The drivers don't like to go to Bethlehem because they're very unlikely to get a fare coming back (at least at this time of year).
However, the taxi drivers in Bethlehem are very open to negotiation. Because of the wall and the closure of many of the checkpoints, many Palestinians have lost their jobs. The standing rate for a ride to St. Catherine's from the checkpoint is 10 NIS (roughly 2.75 USD). I was supposed to call my contact, Fr. Amateis (a Salesian priest and friend of a professor of mine at Holy Apostles), on my way to Bethlehem. However, my phone is apparently able to receive calls but not call out here. The driver I chose called for me (even stopped to by a phone card). As he drove me through the tight streets of Bethlehem, I couldn't help but be a little nervous. As far as I knew, my driver might've been hostile to Americans or taking me to someplace where I wouldn't be able to get back easily. However, after about 10 minutes, we pulled up in front of the Salesian Technical School, and Fr. Amateis stood waiting.
As it turned out, he knew the taxi driver and greeted him warmly. I said to the driver, "Well, then, God must've led me to you." It was actually a rather stunning to me, but Fr. Jacques explained that he knew most of the taxi drivers as he went from Bethlehem to Jerusalem frequently in his work with the Apostolic Nuncio. Father then led me through the streets of Bethlehem and to St. Catherine's Church of the Nativity.
Mass was in Arabic. I can't say there was much difference in the liturgy. From what I could tell, the priest stuck to the rubrics pretty well, and I was able to follow and respond in English where appropriate. Fr. Jacques gave me a tour of the Shrine of the Nativity. He made a point of distinguishing between history and religious practice, but he did not question the authenticity of the locations he showed me in the least. He stressed the importance of trusting those who have passed tradition down to us--a perspective with which I completely agree.
Fr. Jacques treated me to lunch, then took me to the Old City. I'll follow up with a post on that trip later.
One thing that is quite striking is the presence of the military on the streets. The first infantryman I saw was standing on the street in the dark in Tel Aviv, tucking in his shirt, with his M4 slung over his shoulder. That seemed odd enough. However, the next day gave me a real eyeopener. A taxi dropped me off at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The moment I walked in, I was greeted with dozens of young soldiers, men and women. I struggle with calling them men and women because they were the same age as my stepsons and daughters--no older than 23. They, too, carried M4s or other sidearms, clearly well used as the finish was worn on most. They carried their assault rifles slung over theis backs, barrel down, as casually as they might carry a briefcase. For the most part, these seemed no different than any other young adult, which shouldn't be surprising. Military service is mandatory for Israeli youth (although some can get out if they have religious objections).