Jersey Girls and Armenian Priests

I went to a pub for dinner tonight and had a burger with fries and a beer. It was delicious. My waitress was a young woman with bright green eye shadow, sporting several piercings, and wearing a tank top that revealed heavily tattooed skin. She was originally from Teaneck, NJ (I should have guessed, given her accent) and moved to Israel three years ago because “it just felt right.” I wanted her to elaborate, but she left before I could ask anymore questions.

When she took my order, she asked what I wanted on the burger. I asked for cheese, knowing that it is not a kosher combination. But with such a motley crew of servers, I didn’t think religious dietary guidelines would come into play here. But they did.

Maybe the owner kept kosher. Surely the servers, who all looked as though they were going to hit up the clubs as soon as their shifts ended, did not. I could be wrong, though.

Nevertheless, even without cheese, the meal was a great end to an otherwise somber and austere day.

Today I visited Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. It is situated in the outskirts of West Jerusalem, a short walk from the last stop on the light rail—Mount Herzl, named after the founder of Zionism. The walk to the memorial took me along a pleasant, tree-lined path. If I wasn’t preoccupied with the knowledge that this was going to be a difficult visit, it would have been a nice stroll. (The path went through the most densely wooded area I’ve seen since I arrived, and it was nice to be back in nature.)

The main museum is a long, triangular shaped building that cuts through the landscape. It took me about two hours to get through (for an even more depressing visit, one could easily spend the whole day there). There are no words to describe this place—it’s a memorial to six million people who were mercilessly, brutally, and needlessly murdered. It contained artifacts from various camps, including photos, shoes from the victims, letters, diaries… I’m sure you get the idea. It is a visit that everyone who comes to Israel should make.

After Yad VaShem, I took the light rail back into the center of Jerusalem to attend an Armenian service in the Old City. Armenians have one of the oldest continuous presences in the Old City—longer than the Muslims whose religion was established three hundred years after the Armenian Church.

The service was supposed to be held at St. James, located off the main street in the Armenian Quarter. Two Arab men who staffed the entryway (I’m not sure why Arabs were watching the Armenian church) told me that the church was closed for renovations. As I walked out, I noticed a sign saying that the service was moved to the Church of the Holy Archangels.

I left St. James (after the Arabs let me walk around the small courtyard in front of the church) and made my way down the main street to the Armenian convent, where the Church of the Holy Archangels was located. Here, the word “convent” doesn’t refer to a place where nuns live. The convent makes up about half of the Armenian Quarter and is surrounded by high walls within which are found the Gulbenkian Library, the Mardigian Museum (also closed for renovations), and several other buildings, at least one of which was an Armenian seminary.

As I entered the convent, an Armenian man who was half-sleeping told me the area was closed. I tried to explain that I wanted to attend the service, but he wasn’t buying it. “Down, down,” he said, telling me to go back down the ramp that I came up to enter the convent. The service was supposed to start at 3:00, and at that point it was 2:30. I then told him I wanted to see the library. “Closed. Down now.” I knew I was in the right place… I just needed to make it past the gatekeeper.

Frustrated, I exited the compound and went into a nearby ceramic shop that I had visited earlier. I explained my predicament to the Armenian woman at the shop. She called her friend, a librarian at the compound, and asked if they had closed for the day. They had not.

The woman told me that tourists are not usually allowed to enter the compound, but since I was Armenian I could go in. I just needed to tell the half-sleeping gatekeeper that I was part of the club. She asked me if I told him that I was Armenian when I first went in. I did not, and it was then that I realized my mistake…

I went back to the convent and approached the gatekeeper. We did the secret Armenian handshake (really just me saying “Yes hye yem. Eench bes es?” which is Armenian for “I am Armenian. How are you?”) Success! He let me pass and probably fell back asleep.

The Gulbenkian Library was staffed by a beautiful Armenian woman who gave me a quick overview. Since it was nearing 3:00, I was anxious to get to the church. She gave me directions: across the courtyard, down some stairs, turn right, go up some stairs, turn left, and turn left again… the walk took less than a minute, but this is how you get to where you’re going in the Old City.

Just as I entered the church, the bells started ringing. Five Armenian priests in black, hooded robes emerged, followed by about ten teenage boys (who I later found out were seminarians from Armenia) dressed in black pants and blazers with an emblem on the breast. The only tourists were a group of three and myself.

The thirty minute service was extremely elaborate for not having a congregation to preach to, but Armenian services are not about preaching. They are about maintaining tradition and adhering to faith. The small church was cavernous and dark, with rugs on the floor, and silver and gold lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Incense wafted from the censer swung by one of the priests, and small bells on the censer’s chain mingled with the voices of the priests who were praying and singing. The atmosphere was reverent and subdued. The liturgy included chants that have probably remained unchanged for 1,700 years.

The service was short. After it ended, one of the priests, who removed his hood to reveal, much to my surprise, Bono-style wraparound sunglasses, introduced himself to me. We had a brief conversation, before leaving the church together. I exited the Armenian convent, went out of the Old City through Jaffa Gate, and suddenly found myself back in the modern world.

Back in the world of Jersey girls with green eye shadow and burgers and fries.

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