"Allahu Akbar." I stir on Friday morning, awakening to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, the Muslim's voice booming from the loudspeaker sitting atop the spire of the nearby mosque. This is Israel.
I am in Cana, an Arab village a day's walk out of Nazareth along the "Jesus Trail", a Christian pilgrimage route stretching across the Galilee, the land of Jesus' ministry. I am nervous and excited as I have a lofty goal for the day: to walk thirty kilometers, turning the hike from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee - normally a four day trek - into a three day trek. Rolling out of bed I pack up my possessions into the bag I am to carry on my back, and walk into the living room of the Arab-Christian guest house that lodges the various hikers and pilgrims who pass through Cana as they walk the trail.
"The Kingdom of God is like a Jesus Trail marker. If you know where to look, it is always there to guide the way."
Entering the living room of the home-stay guest house I am confronted with eighteen Christian pilgrims, seventeen students and a professor, from Eastern Mennonite University in Pennsylvania. Sitting in a circle of couches, the class conducts their morning session as each student takes a turn to complete the sentence "The Kingdom of God is like..." with something they had seen on the first day of the walk. Grabbing my breakfast of hard-boiled egg, pita and hummus, the professor kindly asks if I would like to join, and though I politely decline the invitation, I continue to listen as the students share their analogies.
"The Kingdom of God is like a field in the Galilee. It may be obscured by trash and pollution, but the beauty is always there if you know how to look."
I smile to myself. This is Israel.
By 8:30 a.m. I am on the trail and hiking out of Cana, into the beautifully forested hills of the Galilee. Seeing the Arab town of Tur'an after less than two hours of walking, I note with pride that I am making great time. Pleased with myself, my mind begins to wander into complacency and when I return to mindfulness, I realize I haven't seen a trail marker in at least ten minutes. Time for some navigation skills! Looking at a map, I realize I now have two options: (A) backtrack at least ten minutes uphill and pick up the trail wherever I had lost it or (B) hike towards the highway I can spot in the distance and walk along the road until it crosses the trail, a route that will shorten my total walk for the day. Option B it is!
Hmmm, I soon realize.... walking along a busy highway is not fun. And, those clouds... yep, and now it is less fun as it has started to rain. So, okay, we're at a crossroads. Do I to continue to hike in the rain, for another two kilometers on a busy highway, and as a reward for making it off the highway, possibly have to trudge my way through the mud for another twenty kilometers, or is it better to cut my losses, swallow my pride and hop a bus to Tiberias, the nearest Israeli city of significance?
Reasonableness wins this battle (don't get used to it fella!), and within a half hour I had found a bus going my way. Sweaty, wet and muddy, I pay my eleven shekel fare and sit down next to a green clad Israeli soldier, passed out in his seat and clutching an automatic rifle in his lap. This too is Israel.
Ok Noah, time to regroup, here's the new plan: arrive in Tiberias, rent a car and drive north exploring my way through the Galilee until I reach my friend's couch in the Golan Heights, then spend the next day hiking the Golan. Thrilled with the new itinerary I send my friend a text message and then drive to the Christian holy spots I had hoped to hit on the trek. First was the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, a small and tranquil church commemorating one of Jesus' supposed miracles. Next, a short walk over to the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, a Franciscan church set right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on the spot where Jesus transferred leadership of the church to Peter.
It's a beautiful walk downhill through gardens towards the water and the church. The sun is bright, the weather is warm, and, well, I begin to hear heavenly music. Okay, I know I'm visiting some pretty holy sights here, but really, am I having visions (hearings?) now?? As I round a corner the chanting grows louder, and nearing the church, I see that the singing is coming from a group of Franciscan pilgrims, fifty or so Catholics dressed all in white, performing an outdoor mass in a shaded area overlooking the Sea (sanity, you are mine again you beautiful son-of-a-bitch!). Backed with two nylon string acoustic guitars and a softly tapped conga drum, the Christian's voices drift across the grass and out into the sea, speaking out wonderfully moving and beautiful minor melodies giving praise to the Lord. Does the setting sound too good to be true, too fantastic and idyllic, out of a movie or a story book or a Christian propaganda film? Well, this is how it is, I swear, it's true! (unless I really am crazy). The service is mesmerizing and beautiful and I sit until the mass culminates in the Eucharist, the priest distributing the blood and body of Christ directly into the mouths of the followers. Uh-huh, this is Israel.
I hike up to the Mount of Beatitudes, the overlook where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount ("Blessed are the..."), to see unparalleled views across the Sea and hills of Galilee. And then to Capernaum, the home base for Jesus' ministry over two thousand years ago. It's now 4:30 and I check my phone to see my friend in the Galilee has responded to say that her couch is not available for the night. So once again a decision must be made. Looking at a map and giving it little thought, I decide to go to drive north to Tsfat, a hilltop Orthodox/Hassidic/Kabbalistic/Artsy/Bohemian Jewish community and spiritual center.
My trusted Lonely Planet recommends a place called Ascent as the most affordable option in Tsfat, so, not reading past the price line, I head there looking for a place to spend the night. Walking into the "guest house" at 5:15, Ascent is a whirlwind of activity, as the staff and guests prepare for the town-wide (and country-wide) shutdown that is to come in a few hours as Shabbat begins.
"Hi, do you have a bed available."
"No reservation? Um, ok, it will cost 195 Shekels for a bed in the dorm."
"195 Shekels?!? My book says 45...."
"It's Shabbat. It includes meals and services and the courses."
"Oh, I don't need all that. Just a bed is fine."
"....um.... no. You do need it. You want it. There is no option."
So it turns out that had I read further in the guidebook, I would have seen that Ascent is not really a hotel, but a Chabad house, a Hassidic center for housing Jews and teaching them in the ways of the Jewish tradition (and in Ascent's case, the Hassidic and kabbalistic traditions). And so it is that by the time night arrives, I find myself in the center of a circle of orthodox Jewish men, holding hands with a black-coated, black-hatted, bearded Hassidic rabbi, spinning each other as we dance to the sounds of the Jewish mystics. Oh yea, I laugh... this is Israel too.
My last stop for the night is Shabbat dinner at the home of the Leiters, a Hassidic family of eleven children (to date) and thirteen grandchildren (to date). As Rabbi Mordechai walks me to the home of my hosts, he asks how it was that I heard about Ascent and ended up in Tsfat that night. I begin by telling him it was an accident, and then relate my story about the hike, the lost trail, the rain, the text message from my friend, and at the end Rabbi Mo laughs, slaps me on the back and with a smile in his eyes like he was party to his own private joke, tells me it was "quite a fortunate accident."
And my dinner with the Leiter clan....? Delicious food, noise, confusion, family, prayers, caring, more delicious food, stories, interruptions, spiritual discussions, even more delicious food. Everything you might expect, plus an extra dose of intensity. This is Israel after all.