We were among the twenty two passengers who left the cruise ship Wednesday morning for an intensive overnight tour of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. We did not know any of our fellow travelers, but it was a congenial group and we enjoyed their company. As usual, the group was a mix of Americans, Brits, Canadians, and a few Australians. There was also a couple who spoke German, but I don’t know where they were from. I found myself intrigued by everyone’s motives for taking this extra journey. Were people motivated by their religion? Were they history buffs? Both? It was never discussed.
We were met by our guide, a seventy-something Jewish man named Moshe. In English, his name would be Moses. We came to know Moshe fairly well over the two days we spent with him. Moshe’s father was Austrian and his mother was Czech; he was born in Austria but grew up in Israel. Retired from Zales, he spends his days showing travelers his hometown and his beloved Israel. He has a wife he adores, four children, and ten grandchildren. He served in the Israeli military in his youth; military service is mandatory in Israel for both young men and women. Politically, he said he is left of center. I don’t know what that means in Israeli politics, but he was very clear that he believes Israel should negotiate when possible, but defend itself when necessary. Across the board, we found that Israelis love their country with a passion. It is not hokey to be patriotic here.
Moshe was a big-hearted man; he was so kind to everyone we met, not just to those of us on his tour. He was the sort of person that others approach readily when they need help or directions. We tagged along more than once while he led strangers to their destination. We escorted a group of lost young nuns from India to wherever they needed to be. They were from Kerala, so I told one of them that Rick and I had been there, which seemed to surprise her. I guess I would have been equally surprised if she had told me that she had been to Aiken. Moshe took a young couple from London under his wing while we waited to get into someplace. He had a story for everything and just as many jokes, some really funny and some just plain corny. Moshe was enormously respectful of other religions and, though a devoted Jew, he knew so very much about Islam and Christianity.
Since we had many centuries of history to cover in two short days, Moshe kept us moving. Garden of Gethsemane, Basilica of Gethsemane, Mt. Scopus, Museum of Israel — we covered all of this by noon on Wednesday morning. After that fast-paced morning, we traveled outside the wall and through the security gate into Palestinian territory to Bethlehem. (That was a little unsettling.)
We walked through the town of Bethlehem, through Manger Square, and on to the Church of the Nativity. As we looked around the church, Moshe explained its significance. This church is really three churches in one: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic. Completed in 565 AD, it is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. Even though it was well past lunch time and people were beginning to look a little weary, Moshe said, “Please, please we must go downstairs to the site of the birth of Jesus. It will only take forty-five minutes.” I just wanted to go sit somewhere, have lunch, and try to process all the things we had already seen, but we joined the long line to go downstairs. The line moved very slowly; some people stay too long when they get to the birthplace, but what can you do? Wait your turn. Our forty-five minute wait turned out to be more than an hour, but we finally made our way along the ever-narrowing path and down the old marble steps to the site of the birth of Christ. Everyone had their time to look and make photographs. Moshe asked that we gather over in a certain area after we had our time at the birthplace. We did as we were told.
When everyone was assembled, Moshe asked us to join him in singing Silent Night.
Oh, for the love of Pete! What’s next? Kumbaya? Please don’t tell me we have to hold hands! I could not believe we were being asked to sing a Christmas carol in May surrounded by all these strangers. Oh, well. Let’s just get this over with, I thought. I was hungry, tired, sick of being pushed and shoved, and really wanted to get out of there.
So sing we did. I could hear Rick’s beautiful voice in my left ear and in my right, I heard various accents of English along with the German version. After we finished, Moshe reminded us that we have been singing that song all of our lives. He said that, as long as we live, we would never sing it again without remembering that we sang it at the birthplace of Jesus. Tears welled in my eyes and I will admit that a few streamed down my cheeks. There are no words to describe the overwhelming emotion of that moment. I was completely gobsmacked. A Jew named Moshe Tal had just given me a gift that I will open every Christmas as long as I live.