Saturday, January 17, 2009

House of Bread.. A Walk in "Ancientness"

What would Christmas in the Holy Land be without visiting the historic house of bread? I went with my sister and a group of Polish students from Tel-Aviv University. We woke up before dawn, and hailed a taxi to Jaffa where we were meeting our group. Just as we arrived we heard a rooster screeching, and I looked nervously at my sister. What a change, I thought to myself, only a few minutes ago I was in a posh Tel-Aviv neighborhood and now I'm practically in farm country. 
Only a few Filipino people stood outside the church, clutching cups of coffee and struggling to stay awake. Soon, waves of buses and foreign workers (most of the Catholics in Israel, who are not Arab, are foreign workers from the Philippines) came into view. My sister and I were attached to my Polish friends, and the priest of Ghana greeted me when I got off the bus in Polish. I stared at him, startled, until my friend quickly jumped in and explained that I was American. 
On the bus ride, before sleep hit my like a brick, I listened a bit to the priest's thoughts on Israel and the Christian holy season. He urged the workers to visit as many holy places as they could, "After all, when you get home people will want to know if you've seen Jerusalem, not how much money you've made." I couldn't help but thinking he was wrong, that in our society obsessed with knowledge and money, people would know you and judge you for both. I also couldn't help thinking of the unfairnesses that drowned many of these foreign workers, many of whom couldn't even get a day from their employer's off for Christmas or had to beg for just one day off. 

In the House of Bread, we explored the church of the birth, where you had to enter through a small hole, that could fit maximum one person. The entrance was fanned out, some people pushed and shoved, while others, reveling in the "Christian spirit" let others go before them. The steps were dangerous, almost treacherous, and once you were inside you were told be silent-others were hearing a mass-and to touch "the birth spot." I got about a second, and wondered: "What is everyone else thinking?" I watched the friends who I went with, who were both agnostics and religious Catholics and everything in between, and wondered why the experience held almost no feeling for me. I didn't feel empty, just bored, tired, and as though I was missing something. We also visited St. Katherine's monastery, and then Shepherd's field. As I was walking down the steps, the Ghanian priest seemed to look through me: "You won't be hearing Mass, will you?" He asked, not in a sad or accusatory tone, just as a fact. I said, "I'm not sure," and smiled. In Shepherd's field I walked around amongst the olive trees, and stared out into the grayness that hung over the city on that day. I walked amongst them because in all the services, amongst everyone who was feeling "something" I wanted to end the numbness that had become Christmas, I wanted to touch something living where I wasn't supposed to have a set reaction. 

Unfortunately, the House of Bread had an almost abandoned feel to it. With many of the stores closed and few people on the streets--because many were home celebrating despite the fact that the PA has made life so unpleasant for Christians that only 10% of the city's current population is Christian. This coldness contributed to the stillness of the city, and to it's sadness. 

Getting to know the stories of the Polish people has not only been eye-opening (I never had any interest in Poland before), but also saddening. When talking to someone at the Overseas School about the Polish night that they had organized, she said: "I feel like they're so nice, but I also feel a distance from them.. because of the .. Holocaust." This person has actually become close with them, but I also approached them with a certain distance in my step. I feel guilty about that-was it just the legacy of the Holocaust, communism, the sense of them being so "different" that kept us apart? Or was it linguistic? 
I'm glad that I took the time to correct my mistake, and I'm glad that they were patient with me. In classes, they were amongst the most eager students to learn, they were bright and tolerant and filled with insight about things that I'd never noticed. 
The lives that their families experienced as a result of World War II and communism aren't so different from what many Jewish people experienced during both those periods. On the way to the house of bread, while scarfing down delicious Polish Christmas cookies, a friend of mine told me that his uncle had been in Auschwitz for being part of the Polish resistance. Another student told us the story of her grandfather-who had escaped Siberia to get away from the Nazis-and his return to Poland. He stayed in Poland, married a Catholic woman, but brought up his children with a love and respect for both religions. Today, their granddaughter is learning Hebrew, and bridging the gaps between Poland and Israel, and Poland and Jews. After having so many experiences with the Polish group, going to the House of Bread with them, to chocolate bars, to tea, to study, or just to talk or walk, I can no longer associate Poland with the Holocaust, with its brutal, gray history. Before, when I pictured "Poland" in my head all that I saw was a type of grayness, associated with communism and the Holocaust. 
It was especially great hearing about the number of Vietnamese people in Poland, who are blending their "home" culture with modern Polish culture. It seems that Poland is no longer the land of the "Hitler's Willing Executioners," but has become far more, with a mobile, educated population. The House of Bread, however, has only seemed to move backwards.