The Beating Heart of Israel

(The next installment in the series,, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)

Jerusalem is one of the most volatile, yet revered, cities in the world, It has haunted me over the decades. It is where I was born; the place where I spent the summer after college graduation; and, the city where cherished family members still live.

This timeless city calls me back to indulge my curiosity about its tumultuous and glorious past. And every time I answer its siren song, I come away with increased knowledge, new perceptions, and a heightened desire to return. In all my travels, I have never experienced an atmosphere so moving and complex in its effect on me as that of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is divided into two sections. When Israel became a nation in 1948, and the first Arab-Israeli War broke out, Jordan occupied East Jerusalem.

Although West Jerusalem grew and prospered over the next 18 years, East Jerusalem had become a forbidden city to Israelis. The Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and Gravestones removed and used for construction. Judaism’s most holy site, The Wailing Wall, was out of reach. This had been the Western wall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD.

One of the results of the Six Day War in 1967 was the reunification of East and West Jerusalem. The current situation may be less than ideal, but Jews, Christians, and Muslims are now free to worship where they please.

The Wailing Wall in the Heart of Old Jerusalem

The Damascus Gate in the North Wall of the Old City (©
The Damascus Gate in the North Wall of the Old City (©

Whenever I entered East Jerusalem through the Damascus Gate, I had the sense of being rapidly sucked 2,000 years back in time. Once firmly situated in the Old City, it was a short walk to the Western Wall – known to Jews as the Wailing Wall – Judaism’s holiest place.

The Wailing Wall with the dome of the Rock in Background (©
The Wailing Wall with the Dome of the Rock in Background (©

Security at the site of the last remnant of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem seemed to increase with each visit. But tourists and the devout were always willing to run the gauntlet of checkpoints in order to gape, worship, or both at what had once been the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. Hence, I was prepared for a crowd.

It is a tradition, I know not from where, to tuck notes containing prayers or wishes into the wall’s ancient cracks. I remember my mother doing this in 1972, but when I asked about her wish, she wouldn’t tell me. My guess is it went something like this: “God, please send me a man crazy enough to marry my crazy daughter.”

The Tunnel Tour

Although the exposed portion of the Western Wall is 200 feet long, another 1,591 feet have been accessed beneath the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Early excavation began in the mid 1800s and is ongoing. The only way to see what lay below the surface was to take a guided tour of the tunnel currently open to the public. There the small group including Simon, Otto, and I descended through the centuries where the earth continues to surrender its ancient secrets. Only a small part of the tunnel was wheelchair accessible. Despite this, it was evident that great care had been taken to prepare the area to share with the world. Ancient history and modern technology combined to provide an experience that far exceeded our expectations. From a moving mechanical display that showed the progression of the temple’s construction, to an ancient cistern dating back to the 1st century A.D.. From a walk along the Herodian road running alongside the temple known as ‘Wall Street’, to the massive “Western Stone”, 45-feet long, almost 10 feet high, and estimated to be between 11 and 15 feet thick, the wondrous hits kept on coming, 

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Whether or not you choose to walk the 14 Stages of the Cross, as I did in 1971, you will eventually find yourself in the Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This structure stands as a testament to what Christians believe is the place where Jesus was buried, and resurrected. I bent over to touch the anointing stone where Joseph of Arimathea allegedly prepared the body of Jesus Christ for burial. This was not the original stone, and I am not a believer, but I confess to feeling a shiver running through me as my fingers made contact with the cold, smooth stone. Whether you are a believer or not, to stand on the very ground where so much tragedy and triumph took place was for me nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The Anointing Stone at the Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (©
The Anointing Stone at the Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (©

The Dome of the Rock

When I first visited Jerusalem in 1972, I still had enough vision to appreciate much of the magnificence around me. On a hot June afternoon, my mother, an uncle, and I made our way to the Temple Mount. As soon as my uncle drew my attention to the Dome of the Rock, I couldn’t look away. My eyes were riveted on a shining gold dome reflecting the sun against a brilliant blue sky.

 The Dome of the Rock is Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. This iconic 7th century octagonal mosque is now off-limits to non-Muslims. I was fortunate during my 1972 visit to have entered under the more relaxed rules of the time. Today, you can enter the courtyard during designated times when prayers are not being held to take a closer look.

I remember the sanctuary’s interior, stunningly decorated with fine marble and exquisite mosaics. Muslims believe this was the spot from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Visitors are permitted in the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, but must be modestly dressed – slacks or long skirts – carry no weapons or sacred Jewish or Christian symbols. The entire Temple Mount area is closed to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays, and for security reasons without notice.

Tower of David Complex and Museum

When you enter Jerusalem’s Old City via Jaffa Gate, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the ancient Citadel and Tower of David looming directly in front of you. On a sunny morning, we climbed to the top of that tower, and were treated to a stunning 360-degree panorama That allowed us views of the Old and new Jerusalem. We gazed at Mount Olive, sight of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, in the middle distance, and the Dome of the Rock in the foreground. From this vantage point, we observed the stark contrast between old and new, ancient and modern. We returned after dark to enjoy a chronological history of the city through the Tower of David Night Spectacular, a stunning sound and light extravaganza projected all around us upon the ancient stone walls of the Citadel. A new and even more spectacular display was already in the planning stages; as if I needed an excuse to return. 

Day Time View from the tower of David (©
Day Time View from the tower of David (©
Night Time View from the tower of David (©
Night Time View from the tower of David (©

I also want to spend some time exploring the museum, for which time didn’t allow on that first visit. This museum utilizes digital technologies, games and apps that enable visitors of all ages to experience Jerusalem’s history going back nearly 4,000 years.

The Sound and Light Show at the Citadel and tower of David (©
The Sound and Light Show at the Citadel and Tower of David in Old Jerusalem (©

During our visit, I learned that Tower of David is committed to making the entire citadel complex totally accessible to wheelchairs. Although ramps have made the courtyard where the Night Spectacular takes place and the museum accessible, this is not yet true of the tower itself.

The Old Jerusalem Market

No visit to Jerusalem would be complete without spending some time at the market. This crowded, bustling ancient gathering place, with its mouthwatering foods, trashy souvenirs, and genuine treasures, is nothing less than an assault on the senses.

An Arab Merchant Selling Bread in the Old City Market in Jerusalem (©
An Arab Merchant Selling Bread in the Old City Market in Jerusalem (©

Competing cooking aromas from a variety of cuisines create an olfactory train wreck. Add noisy running children, vendors trying to get your attention, lost tourists trying to find each other, and you might be tempted to run screaming from the scene. Don’t do it. Slow down, let your fingers caress quality craftsmanship, leave your comfort zone and taste something new, take time to have a conversation with a shop owner selling fine cloth, authentic antiquities, or making tahini the traditional way. We did all these things and more, and have never been able to perceive this, or any other market the same way.

Yad Vashem. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center

My parents were holocaust survivors. I grew up hearing stories of unspeakable suffering and tragedy. My father, who lost most of his large family, spent much of World War II hiding in the woods of Poland. So why would I ever need to spend time at a Holocaust memorial? On a March afternoon in 2017, I found my answer at Yad Vashem.

The Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (©
The Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (©

We were in Jerusalem for the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference in 2017, and Yad Vashem was one of the guided tours offered for attendees. I knew this would be a somber event, but nothing prepared me for the range of emotions I felt as Yad Vashem enveloped me in layers of excruciatingly painful truths.

What and Where Is Yad Vashem?

Yad Vashem is the world’s most comprehensive memorial to the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. It opened its doors in 1957, and was renovated to a complex four times its original size in 2005.

The museum contains over 200 million, articles of documentation: artifacts, photographs, letters, papers, and films. These, and more, bear witness to the horror of Hitler’s, “final solution to the Jewish Question.”

Yad Vashem pays solemn tribute to those who perished not only as a people brought to the brink of extinction, but as individual men, women, and children who’s fate had been sealed by the mere fact that they were Jews. The museum is also an international institute of Holocaust research, making it a comprehensive center for worldwide awareness. It sends a clear warning to present and future generations that evil does, and always will, exist.

The 45 acre Yad Vashem complex is located on the Mount of Remembrance in West Jerusalem. Its structure represents a spike piercing the mountain. A skylight protrudes through the mountain ridge bringing natural light to what lies below. Branching off the shaft are multi-media galleries depicting events before, during, and after the Holocaust. The exit is highly symbolic as it emerges onto a balcony. There visitors are transfixed by the stunning view of the valley, aglow with life and promise for the future.

The Main Artery of the Museum with Galleries Through the Archways on Either Side (©
The Main Artery of the Museum with Galleries Through the Archways on Either Side (©

An introduction to Yad Vashem

Our guide was Bernice, an American transplant with a gift for assisting her charges in understanding – as much as such a thing is possible – Yad Vashem’s exhibits. She included stories of individual victims in order to add human dimension to the countless tragedies displayed in black and white.

Bernice answered tough questions and asked a few of her own. Knowing from where visitors came and what brought them to Yad Vashem helped her focus on areas most relevant to members of her group.

What made Bernice stand out for me was her willingness to make the tour as accessible as possible. She described photos, drawings, and other untouchable items in vivid detail. When I ran my fingers over a scale model of the Sobibor extermination camp, she explained the various buildings and how their placement gave those who were about to be murdered a complete sense of hopelessness. Bernice also read running English translations from a film in another language.

A 3D Model of the Sobibor Extermination Camp in Poland (©
A 3D Model of the Sobibor Extermination Camp in Poland (©

Among the many gut-wrenching exhibits was a cart loaded with victims’ shoes. These were once worn by living human beings. Now, they were a painful reminder of lives cut short by hate and blood-lust.

An original cattle car the Nazis used to transport doomed individuals to the camps made me want to vomit. It seemed as if I was experiencing the sounds of fear and despair, the smells of stale sweat and disease, and a sense of complete hopelessness. But I also knew, in that instant, what I felt couldn’t begin to come close to the reality of those millions.

Four Must-Sees

We saw and experienced far more at Yad Vashem than we could absorb in one visit. Below are four specific areas that stood out for me:

1. Hall of Names

The Cone of Photographs and Testimony  the Centerpiece- in the Hall of Names (©
The Cone of Photographs and Testimony the Centerpiece- in the Hall of Names (©

The Hall of Names personalizes every Jewish individual who perished in the Holocaust. The main hall is circular in shape. Pages containing biographies of Murdered Jews are stored in individual spaces around the perimeter. The hall contains six million spaces for victims’ names. Approximately two million are empty because many were murdered without a trace left behind.

The center of the Hall of Names’ ceiling sweeps upward 30 feet forming a cone-shape. Six hundred photographs and fragments of Testimony represent a small fraction of the six million. The faces are reflected in water in an opposing cone.

The hall of names is a work in progress, and new names are constantly being added by visitors with verifiable information. However, it is highly unlikely all six million spaces will ever be filled.

2. Hall of Remembrance

One of the most gripping facets of The Hall of Remembrance is its floor. The mosaic stone bares the names of the 22 most vile of several hundred Nazi concentration camps scattered throughout Europe. 

The Eternal Flame and Marble Memorial Remembering the Over 6  Million Victims of the Holocaust (©
The Eternal Flame and Marble Memorial Remembering the Over 6 Million Victims of the Holocaust (©

Another is the Eternal Flame providing continuous illumination to the Hall, which only adds to its somberness.

Beneath a marble slab in front of the flame lie ashes. These were once living human beings before they became Holocaust victims. The ashes were brought to Israel from liberated extermination camps.

3. Children’s Memorial

Yad Vashem consists of one heartrending exhibit after another, but The Children’s Memorial tore me to pieces. The memorial is a grotto dug out of the mountain.

Entrance to the Grotto Housing the Children's Memorial (©
Entrance to the Grotto Housing the Children’s Memorial (©

My ears and mind absorbed a haunting chant the moment we entered. The bone-chilling chanting was a backdrop to a recorded recital of names, ages and homelands of 1.5 million murdered Jewish children. This intermingling of sound created an atmosphere of unspeakable loss. Every name felt like a knife in my heart, representing unbearable tragedy and lost potential.

Five ceiling candles reflected their light in mirrors. The mirrors expanded these five candles into countless stars filling a dark sky: each one a murdered child. It was all I could do to not run out of the memorial screaming in anguish and white hot anger.

A Sculpture Memoralizing the Children Who Perished During the Holocaust (©
A Sculpture Memoralizing the Children Who Perished During the Holocaust (©

4. Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations

If there is a bright spot at Yad Vashem, it’s the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. Around the complex, 2,000 trees stand adjacent to plaques bearing the names of non-Jews who risked everything, including their lives, to rescue, hide, and protect Jews from their Nazi predators.

Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations (©
Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations (©

The trees are a testament to courage and conscience during one of the bleakest periods in the history of mankind. I believe there are still such people among us today. My only hope is that we never have to live in a time such as the Holocaust to learn who they are.

We spent nearly two hours exploring Yad Vashem, but I suggest visitors allow themselves at least double that. I saw and experienced so much, but there was ten times more I missed. As painful as it was, a full day at Yad Vashem is in my plans for our next visit to Jerusalem.

Admission to Yad Vashem is free, and the complex is fully accessible.

Yad Vashem
Har Hazikaron
P.O.B. 3477
Jerusalem 9103401 Israel
972) 2 6443400

Final Thoughts

If I had the opportunity to spend a year in Jerusalem, it still wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to discover all there is to learn about this incomparable city. West Jerusalem is modern, vibrant, and teeming with activity. The old City, on the other hand, has managed to remain true to its history and traditions as much as possible in this rapidly changing world. Yet, the combination creates an irresistible invitation to come and partake of all Jerusalem has to offer.

If you’ve never traveled to Jerusalem, I strongly advise you to do so. Because no matter your politics, religion, recreational interests, or taste in food, Jerusalem is waiting to surprise you in the best ways possible.

Note on Covid19: Travel is beginning to resume, but countries, states, provinces, and municipalities are reopening at different rates. The rules may vary from place to place. Be sure to check the website belonging to venues, restaurants, events, or accommodations you plan to visit before finalizing your plans.

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