Spice Stores and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

By Larry Rothbart

There were several large takeaways for me from our group trip to Israel. One, which several people have noted in their essays and became the group’s running theme, was that Israel is a complex and complicated puzzle. There are many competing issues and concepts running through the people and peoples of the country (sometimes running through the same person). How else can you explain individuals who are speaking out against the results of the occupation of the West Bank (both to the Palestinian populations and to the soldiers themselves) while they still fulfill their reserve duty in the IDF? How else can you explain Palestinian Israeli Citizens cringing at the recent passage of the “Nation State Law” but nonetheless feeling that Israel was still their country? Or the Jewish Israelis who struggle every day with the disappointments of the politicians who turn their back on the “strangers” in their midst, in essence forgetting the biblical message to “remember we were strangers once in a strange land” but they, these thoughtful Israelis still proudly reflect that they are Zionist in spite of their leaders’ actions as they strive to have their country reach its ideals.

These conflicts and dialectic debates were not limited to Jews and Palestinians and perhaps that helps explain the magic and the conundrum of Israel that drives many of us crazy. It is a place where so many peoples from throughout the world, of different faiths and nationalities and ethnic groups, find a spiritual connection and affinity even though it is a place so physically small. Maybe that is in fact the strength, beauty and draw of the place.

Perhaps a simple experience of our travels, merely walking around, can help explain my dizzying thoughts. The Old City as well as virtually every open air market is filled with stores selling spices. These spices are not sitting in hermetically sealed antiseptic little bottles. No, these spice stores are filled with piles and piles of different spices. They are yours for the taking. You smell the spices as you drift through the markets, steps before you are in front of the store. All different colors, scents and tastes. They compete for our attention; stimulating the senses, but all in the same locale. Some work together now and will do so in the future in the kitchen; some should never be mixed but they all sit in the same store waiting to be gathered and enjoyed. The stores, many just small stalls, carry them all in the complex and complicated need to carry all the ingredients necessary for the cooking of delicious cuisine. The cuisines of the world, Palestine, Israel, the Old City cook tops and our own kitchens could not exist without the complexity and competing spices of the small spice stores found throughout. The stores would be incomplete without the full tableau. And the spices provide another link between the communities as the communities all share the spices.

On one of our last full days, Shabbat, we went on the walking tour of the Christian Quarter of the Old City. We, as a group, had separated for the morning. Some had gone on a roving Shabbat Service tour, visiting several different synagogues and observing how each set of customs were different, yet based on the same traditions. Complexity and complications. Some had “slept in.” Some of us went back to the Old City to return to the Kotel for one more time and maybe do some additional shopping in the stores of the shuk. I went to the Kotel with Laura and Bobbie. They went to the women’s side and I went to the men’s side (another set of discussions are triggered by that divide). I enter the men’s side and am struck by the fact that there are three, count them, three different orthodox Torah services going on at the same time in the space of 25 square yards. What really struck me was that they all ended within two minutes of each other. Why couldn’t there just be one service for all these people? Complex and complicated but there was space for all to observe the way they wanted in the small space, even those of us who just prayed in their own heads and souls.

Later in the early afternoon we joined up for our planned walking tour of another part of the Old City, all the while sharing our various morning adventures as we entered the next neighborhood of the next set of peoples sharing the small space of the Old City and Israel in general. It is the Christian Quarter. But is this, an area of simplicity and uniformity? Is this different from the complexity of the Jewish citizens and the Palestinian citizens, Jews and Muslims or the various, dare I say, sects of Judaism such as witnessed in a small part at the Kotel that morning or the others experienced in their rotating Shabbat service? No. The multiple demands on this small plot of land are only replicated and in some ways magnified by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the place believed to be where Jesus was crucified, died and resurrected after being taken down from the cross). This should be a place of peace, calm and community. Instead, complexity and complications abound even in this place. First, worship in the church itself is divided among at least three different major sects; Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic, as well as Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox. In fact, due to the conflicts among these groups, the keys for the church are held not by Christians but by two Muslim families who have done so for hundreds of years since the groups could not be trusted to let the others in. There is a group of monks from Ethiopia living on the roof of the church so that they can worship there. They “took over” one of the chapels and remain living there to prevent another group from taking the chapel back. The compromise is that two groups share that particular chapel but remove their own articles of worship lest the other group dispose of them.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre all the groups hold rotating services around the whole facility like clockwork. Each with their own set of worshiping customs and chants. The church is filled with pilgrims. They are touching the various holy spots, candles aflame both stationary and as part of processions of hundreds. They are burning different incenses and spices; giving off a mixture of wonderful aromas and at times acrid smells in their smoke. The pilgrims are from all cultures and ethnic groups; white, black, brown and all shades in between. They are from Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Far East and the Sub-Continent. In fact, before we even enter the church we see pilgrims in saris and traditional Indian garb carrying a cross for the stages of the cross.

All this, in the small space of the church. The sects, the religions, merging and converging, creating an amalgam of conflict, complexity and complications which have nothing to do with the outward issues of Israel yet everything to do with it. This small spit of land holds such meaning to so many; of course there is conflict and confusion enveloped by smoke and spice.
We leave the church for the final walk from the Old City to the words of poets. I am perhaps more confused than ever. We grab some fresh herbs from a bush on our way out of the ancient walls. Down the valley and up to the Montefiore windmill where we are to say goodbye to Shabbat with Havdallah. We are enveloped with our own prayers, our own spices and our own flame. I am struck that the conflict, complexity and complications are still there but maybe not so much in that moment of peace and spirituality. As with the spice stalls, we are different and important; some mix well and some not so well but all are necessary for the small space. The spice stalls would not be complete without the mixture of the piles of spices even if they all do not work together in a specific dish. If one spice was missing the whole would be diminished. It is just recognizing this mutual need that is so hard.