Sunday, December 27, 2009

Life Above the Streets

Most tourists in Jerusalem's Old City, seem to be so captivated by the offerings of the various souvenir shops or the ancient stones that they never look above their heads. Thus, they don't realize there is life above the streets.

The majority of the shops lining the streets of the Old City have apartments above, which is where most of the residents live - i.e. above street level.

In this photo the woman is hanging her laundry in the midst of a cobweb of electric wires - some old, some new, some legal, some illegal. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

13 Years Ago Today

Thirteen years ago today, Christmas Eve 1996, Colleen and I met on a blind lunch date at the Chinese Kitchen in Odessa, Texas.

Today, we had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Jerusalem, and Grace took this photo for us.

We wish each of you a Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Farewell Israel Baseball

Twelve years. That's how long I was intimately involved in the activities of the Israel Association of Baseball: umpire, umpire trainer, club team coach, national team coach, fitness instructor, board member, peace envoy, guidance counselor and who knows what else.

Mine was an unlikely beginning: As I was walking down King David street, I heard the sound of a ball hitting a bat come from behind the YMCA. Curious about that sound, I went around the building to see, to my utter surprise, a baseball practice. I stood around watching, making mental notes of things that could be improved, and when the players took a break, I asked the coach if he would mind if I made some suggestions. He was receptive to my input and asked if I wanted to umpire the scrimmage game that was about to start.

That's how it started. A twelve year relationship that has taken me to places like Cyprus; Moscow; north, central and south Italy; and Philadelphia, Omaha, Kansas City and Pittsburgh for various competitions. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to participate in two Jewish Olympics, once as an umpire, once as a coach. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to travel to Jordan as a peace envoy in a failed effort to forge a relationship between Israel Baseball and Jordan Baseball. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to meet Major League Baseball owners, players, scouts, and executives.

But most importantly it was a relationship that gave me the opportunity to invest in the lives of young men, to see boys mature into men who will one day move beyond baseball to be soldiers and university students and build careers and families. And hopefully do those things better because of something they learned in one of my programs.

I'm thankful to those who offered any type of support to my efforts whether it was a financial gift, a kind word, friendship, a word of wise counsel, or by running interference for me with my adversaries.

Now, it's time for my four-month leave of absence to officially become a resignation. Thank you Israel Association of Baseball, it's been a great ride.

Here are a few pics of my last act as Israel Baseball national team coach.

Monday, December 21, 2009

You May Feel Underdressed if . . .

. . . you come to tour the Holy Land without your Jesus clothes.

Question: Do we really honor the Lord Jesus by wearing a "likeness" of him on our clothes and sitting on that "likeness" as we ride in a bus all day? 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Davinci Code in Arabic

I wasn't surprised to see The Davinci Code in Arabic, but I was a little surprised to see that it was published by the Arab Scientific Publishers. Actually, after further consideration, the publisher didn't surprise me.

For the record, there may have never been published a less scientific book than The Davinci Code, and the Arab Scientific Publishers has undermined any shred of scientific credibility with their decision to publish this book.

If you are interested in why I would say that, here is one good resource.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hannukah 2009: My Gift - Day 6

Our Hannukah gift this year was a 2 year residence visa.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Shabbat Shalom

Hannukah Starts Tonight

Jelly doughnuts are a wonderful part of the Hanukkah holiday. The doughnuts were chosen as a symbol since they are cooked in oil and the holiday is about the miracle of the oil. I'm happy about this tradition.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Temple Mount Tensions - Pt 1

"A Jewish bride and her father were arrested on the Temple Mount the day before her wedding, after an Arab policeman claimed he saw the father muttering prayers and the bride nodding her head."
That is the opening paragraph of an Arutz 7 report that details the arrest in more detail. (The Jerusalem Post version can be found here.) No doubt, there will be some dispute regarding the accuracy of some of the specific details in the Arutz 7 report, but the story itself is indicative of the growing tensions that I've witnessed on the Temple Mount in recent months.

Muslims claim the 34-acre Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) is their third holiest place, while Jews call it Har HaBayt (The Temple Mount) and claim that it is their holiest place. Currently, the location is under the political and military control of the Israeli government. However, it is religiously overseen by the Islamic WAQF, which keeps a close eye on all the activities in the area to make sure they are consistent with Islamic religious sensitivities. And deference to religious sensitivities - any real or perceived sensitivities - seems to be a de facto concession of control.

Since my Arabic class is in the neighborhood, I have been up on the Temple Mount several times in the last few months. I enter the only place I can, the tourist gate, and exit the gate that is only about 100 yards from my school. And during my visits, I watch to see what's going on: who's visiting, where they go, what the soldiers are doing, how the monitors monitor, etc.

This will be the first of a series of blogs - mostly a photo essay - relating what I've seen and learned during my visits.

In recent months I have had the opportunity to visit with Muslims who have an interest - personal or professional - in what is happening on the Mount. They have told me of their fears that Jews will pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque or elsewhere, that the soldiers are an unnecessary desecration of the place, and that Ariel Sharon ruined it for everybody (i.e. non-Muslims) who would like to go inside the mosques or the Dome of the Rock when he visited (i.e. desecrated) the holy place. 

Here are some of the things I've seen:

The presence of Israeli soldiers on the Temple Mount - for many reasons - is offensive to Muslims, and in this photo you can see that they are eating, which multiplies the offense because it is forbidden for non-Muslims to eat in the Haram al-Sharif.

I find it interesting that non-Muslims are forbidden to eat in the Noble Sanctuary, but it is common to see Muslims having picnics and birthday parties there. Why would it be a desecration for one group to eat there, but not for the other? It's not like Jews and Christians are offering their food to idols before they partake. And one would think the trash often left behind by Muslim diners would be a desecration of their own third-holiest location. (More on this in the near future.)

It has become common for groups of Jewish men to go up on the Temple Mount to walk around, and some suggest, to pray there. My guess is that some do, some don't.

You should notice that they are being escorted (some would say monitored) by the policeman that is following them. It is also common for one of the WAQF monitors to be nearby to make sure that they don't pray.

Before ascending, these men go through the ritual bath to purify themselves. Also, they generally have been schooled in where they can and can not go (from the Jewish perspective), so that they don't accidentally enter into a holy area. Not all Jews agree that it is appropriate to ascend the Temple Mount in its current condition; and it goes without saying, that among those who believe it is permissible to go up, there isn't complete agreement as to the "go, no go" areas.

In the above photo, the guys appear to be lining themselves up with the eastern side of the Dome of the Rock, which many people believe to be built over the location of Herod's Temple. And by lining themselves up in this way, some may conclude they are intending to pray toward the Holy of Holies. While I did not witness their entire visit, I did not see them pray. But, I was drawn to this particular scene because the WAQF monitor was giving the Israeli policeman an earful for allowing them to drift too far away from him "so that they could pray."

Question: If Jews and Muslims believe in the same deity - as many Muslims and Jews claim - why should it be a problem for Jews to pray to him in the Noble Sanctuary?  

I'm fully aware that there is a game of cat and mouse going on here: On occasion(s), some of the Jews who ascend the Temple Mount are trying to be provocative. At the same time, the Muslims sometimes overstate the infraction. So much so, that it has become a maxim that to determine if a Jew is praying on the Temple Mount, one only need to see if his lips are moving. According to the article mentioned above, the maxim is no longer just a colorful story told by tour guides.

I personally know people on both sides of this issue, and I expect that tensions are only going to increase.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Judea and Samaria or the Occupied Territories

Many have asked, "What's the difference between Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, and the Occupied Territories?" In the Middle East conflict, vocabulary is very important. The vocabulary a person uses usually is a tell tale sign of that person's political position.

For example, those that refer to the area generically known as the West Bank by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, then it is safe to assume they believe Israel has a legitimate claim to that land. Those that call the West Bank the Occupied Territories, clearly do not believe Israel has a right to that land. By the way, the term West Bank refers to the land that is on the west bank of the Jordan River, which is alternatively called the Occupied Territories or Judea/Samaria.

Here's a sign that uses the biblical terms: Judea and Samaria. It says, "Judea and Samaria: The story of every Jew." Can you guess guess the political position of its designers?

Monday, December 07, 2009

I Was Surprised to See . . .

a Jewish star in the center of this window in the Al Aksa Mosque. Perhaps that's where one of the new windows will be installed.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Graffiti: On the Temple Mount

Someone has spray painted "Allah" and "Muhammed" in Arabic on one of the gates leading to the upper platform on the Temple Mount.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Holy Land's Underbelly

On Wednesday evenings, my friend Bill and I go to Tel Aviv to teach at the Sudanese church, which is located near the central bus station in south Tel Aviv. This an area that is heavily populated by foreigners - some legal, some illegal.

One Israeli described the demographics like this: "It's so crowded with foreigners that it's hard to find an actual Israeli there. And if you do, they are simply passing through going to or from the bus station." His observations are pretty accurate. After our meeting with the Sudanese men, we generally get a bite to eat at the nearby pedestrian mall. Besides eating, we also wander around trying to strike up conversations with whomever we can; but mostly we are observing, trying to figure out how things work in this island of foreign workers.

Not only is this the foreign workers' stomping ground, it is also an area with homeless people who have found themselves on the streets due to drug abuse or mental illness. I'm sure there may be some other reasons, but those seem to be the most prominent.

The homeless guys in the photo above, are sleeping in the shooting gallery. That's where heroin addicts hide in the shadows and inject themselves  (see the video below). The place is littered with filth, all the things associated with homeless drug addicts: human waste, trash, treasures collected from dumpsters, rats, empty lighters, spoons, and old needles and syringes.

At times it's overwhelming to see the collection of misery that has settled in that area. And, I'm talking about the majority of those in the area, not just the heroin addicts sleeping in their own waste. My heart aches both for the addicts and for those who have made their way to Tel Aviv - however they did that - to work one level above slave conditions (worse in some cases) in an effort to send some money back home, or to seek a better life for themselves.

What's astounding is the emptiness and collective hopelessness that permeates the area. Pubs of one ethnic variety or another are the gathering places, the anesthesia that dulls the emptiness that is life for so many of these wanderers.

In contrast to this painful scene, are the men who meet us to study God's word at the Sudanese church a couple streets over. They, too, have tales of hardship to tell, but they aren't empty or hopeless. The difference? It isn't in the hardship of their lives verses the hardship of those we painfully observe on the walkway each week, because their lives are equally challenging. The real difference is the hope of the gospel.

I'm encouraged every Wednesday night to sit with these men and see a real example of the hope and contentment the gospel offers; to see the effects of believing in the supremacy of Christ over all other suitors.

Here's a video of two guys shooting heroin in the shooting gallery last night.

UPDATE: Here's the same video with brightness and contrast adjustments:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I Was Skeptical

One of the things that many tourists say after being in the Old City is "except for the Jewish Quarter, it's so dirty."

In fairness to the other quarters, it should be noted that the Jewish Quarter has been completely rebuilt since 1968, so if for no other reason, it simply looks cleaner and neater because it is much newer. It should also be noted that the Jewish Quarter also seems to get better municipal services.

Having offered that caveat, I want to add that the people in and around the Jewish Quarter don't seem to throw trash on the ground to the degree that people in the other quarters do. Now, that statement is an observation, not the result of scientific data gathering. I simply see what I see: People in the Jewish Quarter tend to not throw trash on the ground, while those in the other quarters have historically just thrown their candy wrappers, coffee cups, cigarette packages, etc, on the ground.

So, I was skeptical when I noticed new trash cans (with liners) in the Muslim Quarter, specifically along the high traffic Al Wad Road, which connects Damascus Gate with the Western Wall Plaza.  That the cans are chained down might suggest some higher ups in the municipality were skeptical as well. The cute stickers say (only in Arabic) "The city is your home, keep it clean."

The Old City has several full time street sweepers, which probably accounts for some of the ease with which its residents toss their litter on the ground. Kids and teens seem to be the worst, but I see a lot of adult men modeling the litter dropping custom, too. I've also been told that in the Arab culture exists the idea that "what's inside my home is mine, what's outside is not." And this maxim probably contributes to the acceptability of simply dropping litter wherever one may be when there's litter to be dropped.

Further observation: While there is still a considerable amount of littering in the target area, the campaign does appear to be helping. I hesitate to use the word working, but slowly it might actually be working. Obviously time will tell, but there is already a noticeable difference in the appearance of Al Wad Road after the first month or so. And, to my great surprise, the cans are still in place and stocked with liners. I thought for sure they would have been stolen or destroyed within the first couple of weeks. I was wrong.