Italy. But whichever country we chose for May would be beautiful.

I guess whichever country we decided to spend the month of May in was bound to be beautiful.

We spent Halloween in Zaragoza, 41 degrees north latitude, and the aspens and poplars were all bright yellow.  By January in Merzouga, in the Sahara desert of southern Morocco, the last yellow leaves were dropping in the sunshine, 31 degrees north latitude, and it was COLD at night.

So here we are in Italy, where whole hillsides are bursting with yellow wildflowers and hedges smell like flower shops.  We are soaking in the beauty and sunshine, and we really do wish you were here.  I’d love to be making you all coffee and urging you to have another croissant from the campground bakery.  Honestly, it’s no trouble: we’ll just bike over there.

Tuscan Wildflowers

We spent last week based at a campground in the middle of Tuscany, exploring towns and savoring some of the greatest art we have ever seen.  For example, in Florence, from the church of Santa Maria Novella, a series of frescoes on the life of Mary, including her engagement to Joseph and her earlier move from her family home to the Jerusalem Temple, which the Qur’an describes but the Canonical Gospels do not:

bottom: Mary taken to Temple, Mary engaged, more. Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence

And this immense painted crucifix by Giotto that hangs over the nave:


Or this one, moved from the famous Duomo church to the Museum across the street.  It’s part of a series of carved hexagons, and it shows Eve being taken out of the side of Adam, the mythic story from Genesis about the one time a woman was born from a man, who slept through it all.  Of course.

Eve taken from Adam's Rib, Duomo Museum, Florence

Beauty is not mostly made by humans, even if we’re the ones who notice it.   The sun’s path across the sky can be traced and marveled at.  This brass line on the floor of the nave notes the constellations of the zodiac which rule each month of our year.  This medallion celebrates the winter solstice, when the sun casts its longest reach of the year through the door of the Basilica.

Summer Solstice - sun-angle finder, Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence

We also loved the decoration inside the Great Synagogue of Florence, the Tempio Maggiore.  It reminds you of the Muslim world, and it should, since after Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain, they were welcomed in Muslim places like Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey, and the architecture of those lands inspired the men who built this great sanctuary in the 1880’s.  The brass plate marks the pew for the Consiglio, the advisory board of the synagogue.

Place of Honor for Councilman, Interior, Florence Grand Synagogue

We’ve also enjoyed the Italians’ flexible relationship with rules and regulations, and their love for everything amore.   Lovers write their initials on these padlocks, attach them to the wrought iron of this bridge in Florence, and then throw the key in the river.  They are not allowed to do this, says the attractive bronze sign.  I am sure a municipal employee polishes it a couple of times a year.

Love Breaks The rules

After a week of love, art, and walking our bikes when the uphills got too long, we left Tuscany.

Now, we’re on the island of Elba, best known for Napoleon being exiled here in 1814 after his disastrous campaign in Russia.  He attacked Russia because he feared they were conspiring with the English to attack his Empire.  So pretty much all the European powers got together and sent him here, where he immediately had marshes drained, roads built, water supplies set up, and hospitals constructed.  After 300 days, he got bored with Elba, sneaked away, landed in France a few days later by boat, and marched to Paris to take up his throne again.  He was defeated about a hundred days later at Waterloo, in Belgium, and exiled this time to the other side of the planet, a South Atlantic island named St. Helena.

Here’s a view of Elba, where our ferry dropped us off at the dock in Portoferraia.

Elba Shoreline and Mobty Lifeboat

We easily found our campground on the south side of the island, and settled in for a week of biking, swimming in the sea, hiking, and reading.

We have novels and nonfiction, but the news from home is gripping.  God help us.  Despite all the claims of news being faked (and surely some of the news we read now, and read before the election WAS fake), it looks like we are finally getting stories that so many wanted kept “in the family.”

So I’ll close with one of my favorite paintings by Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery.  It shows the mythic King Midas, advised by Suspicion and Ignorance, sitting on his throne.  He’s getting ready to judge the victim of slander, who’s being dragged by the hair by Defamation, accompanied by Fraud, Spite, and Deception.  On the left, Repentance looks at the naked Truth, who raises her eyes to heaven.

An innocent man being libelled and judged by poorly-advised King Midas



Recovering and Uncovering

First of all, thanks to all our well-wishers since our break-in a week ago.  We keep discovering little things that we want to use that are gone, and get angry again.  This morning (Monday), the VW dealer is installing the four parts of the door handle which the thieves wrecked in order to get into the van.

But we are back to our happy routine of van life, and it is so great to be cooking for ourselves again.

Here’s one last theft-related photo: we googled “Apple Computer Dealers” and found one called the R-Store a few miles away.  We took the subway and started following the blue dotted line on Lynnell’s phone.  But the store was not there!  About ten seconds before she took this picture, I confidently pronounced that the store must have moved, because there was no such place as #1 Whatever Street.  The facial expression is a re-enactment, but I promise I only moved maybe five feet for the picture.

John can't find the R-store on his phone!

A few days later, after careful application of sunscreen, and parking the van in a VERY SAFE SPOT, we spent four hours in the remarkably well-preserved Roman city of Pompeii.  It’s laid out on a grid, and 20,000 people lived there, although on August 24, the day Mount Vesuvius blew its top in CE 79, a lot of folks had evacuated.   After digging two meters of soil away, the wooden roofs were gone, but the walls, doors, windows, and floors were intact.

You could easily imagine someone ducking out this back door to go buy something for dinner.

Vesuvius and gate-shadow, Pompeii

And like a lot of city dwellers today, Pompeiians apparently bought, rather than cooked, most of their meals.  Here’s what Tour Guide author Rick Steves calls “a fast food place” that opens right onto the street:

food-to-go restaurant counter, , Pompeii

My sister, who in addition to being much younger than I am, arrived here long, long ago, sent me this picture after the blog post was published:


Pompeii was part of a network of multicultural cities and towns linked by the Globalization of the day, the Pax Romana.  Rome conquered, taxed, regulated, and pretty much made sure that the nations they ruled stayed peaceful for trade and travel.  Here was the deal Rome made: “Go ahead and have your own religions and foods.  Speak your languages.  But don’t try to separate yourself from the Empire.  You can sell your goods all over the world, and be able to buy things from far away.  We’re going to build a lot of roads (you’re welcome); aqueducts and canals (you’re welcome); and Temples (make sure you worship Caesar as well as whoever else you’ve got).  No walls on your borders unless we build them.  Be ready to send some young men to the other side of the world to fight barbarians.  That’s the deal.”

Young men could also make a name for themselves–and a lot of money if they were successful–in pro sports.  Gladiators lived in the cells around this huge training ground in Pompeii, and fought one another in the arena behind.  The modern Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj made these great cast bronze pieces to commemorate them.

Gladiator sculptures in ruins, Pompeii

And then, after the volcano spread the horrible cloud of death and concealment, Pompeii was gone.  The people passed into anonymity, and their carefully-built city was gone. Life is short, wrote the French poet H.-F. Amiel, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us along the way.  Be quick to love.  Make haste to be kind.  And the God of compassion will go with you.

Back in Rome, we ran into some brass cobblestones every once in awhile.  We would squat and read about the mostly Jewish people who had once lived in the houses we passed.  It was awfully sobering.  All the people named on these stones were arrested, mostly on March 21, 1944.  So close to the end of the war!  By May, all had been killed, mostly in Auschwitz, far to the north and east, though a few of them did not even get that far.  The DiConsiglio family lived here.  Some were hiding at their grandfather’s hardware store across the street. The German artist Günter Demnig has installed these and other Stumbling Stones, as he calls them, in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

Memorial cobblestones of Roman jews

Jews first came here in 161 BCE, and their religion was admired throughout the Empire.  Unlike the violent, “degraded, and shameful practices” of the Romans (Tacitus, Annals), Jews had high ethical standards and a God whose name was too holy even to pronounce.  Plenty of “pagan” Romans converted to Judaism during that time.  The Jewish community flourished here in the Middle Ages, and scholars helped translate Arabic and Greek works into Latin.  There was a famous Talmud school.   When the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, many came here, with no money, and were welcomed.  In other parts of Italy, they were turned away.  By 1555, however, the Pope ordered Jews into a ghetto, and forced them to wear yellow badges.  For the next three hundred years, there were more tolerant popes and less tolerant ones, and life for Jews in Rome could be comfortable and then suddenly precarious.  Besides being unwilling to convert to the state religion, Jews were also targets of suspicion because they were cosmopolitan, educated, and rootless.  Their rootlessness, of course, was the result of their having often had to relocate from whatever place they’d try to put down roots in.

80% of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, mostly by hiding or emigrating, and some by having the good luck to be put in Italian internment camps, which often did not allow inmates to be shipped to the death camps.

The Jewish community in Rome today numbers about 25,000, according to a recent Ha’aretz article. Wikipedia says 45,000.  There are about fourteen synagogues in the city, though some are barely functional.

Not far from the DiConsiglio’s home are the ruins of the Colosseum where the Romans used to watch prisoners thrown to the lions, gladiators fighting to the death, and even mock naval battles.  They could put six feet of water in the place in short order.  It was sobering to read the placards describing how some combatants were ignited to add drama to the spectacle, and how Jewish and other slaves were put to work constructing the Colosseum.  Apparently a lot of the funds used to quarry and transport stone came from selling valuable objects stolen in the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

big man with tattoos, Colosseum

The bronze Stumbling Stones help us remember.  Maybe my favorite work of Roman art, though, was this statue (below) of a wayfaring stranger.  We saw it at a distance, and couldn’t help going up to see if there was a face under the hood.  Sure enough, there was, as well as wounds in feet and hands.  The inscription on the wall plaque comes from Jesus’ famous story about how people would be judged when, one day, they meet their Maker.   I was a stranger, and you took me in.


"I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

The Final Exam in Life, according to Jesus is: when you cared for ones who the world regards as unimportant, you were caring for me.  If they were sick, imprisoned, homeless, or lacking food or clothing, the way you treated them will reveal your spiritual quality.   How you treat your friends and family is important, sure, but the real test is something else.  Your faith in God is revealed in how you act toward people who aren’t going to repay you or make you famous or rich.

St. Francis put it another way: Preach the Gospel.  If necessary, use words.

The Five Stages Of Recovering From Having All Your Stuff Stolen

Five days ago, unknown jerks broke the door handle off our van and got in, grabbed all the luggage they could find, and drove off.  We had been parked in the lot of a big mall near the airport, getting Italian SIM cards for our phones.  It took longer than usual for the SIM cards to activate, and we went back to the van to get a couple things, talking about the weird message Lynnell had gotten about two purchases in Rome on her credit card.  We thought the mall wifi was hacked, but when we got to the car, we found out WE had been hacked.  Jacked.  Fracked.   Here’s where we had been parked.  Yeah, you’re right: the tree on the left covered the bad guys.  They just grabbed everything that was packed like luggage, which was pretty much all our stuff, minus the cooking gear and travel books.


I won’t bore you with the list of stuff we will never see again, but the police were very calm.  No, we can’t give you a form right now, but don’t worry, they told us, you can file your report any time in the next 90 days.  Don’t feel too bad, that mall doesn’t have very good security.  Go have a nice dinner with your family.  It was closing time, maybe 6:30 pm, and the officers were all going home.  Thanks, guys.

We were stunned and numb, walking aimlessly back to the mall and trying to decide what to do after visiting the precinct.  We were out by the airport, planning on putting the van in long-term parking and meeting our son Carter and daughter-in-law Jennifer who were joining us within the hour for a long weekend, getting away to Rome from rainy, cold London.  For a while, we thought it would be better to stay in a hotel near the airport, so we could have the van to drive to big box stores and buy new stuff.  We needed everything.

But we wisely decided to leave the van in a much more secure lot, near the po-po, and go meet Jen & Carter’s flight.

The next 24 hours we spent in their loving and efficient care, making lists, telling the story over and over, going through Kübler-Ross’ stages of loss:

  1. denial (doesn’t last long, looking at a very empty van with a broken door handle)
  2. anger (how dare they!)
  3. bargaining (OK, God, thanks for the lesson on impermanence, but no more, OK?)
  4. depression (let’s just go home to Minnesota.  I don’t want to see the Colosseum, I don’t want to have to find someone to fix the door, what else did they take?), and
  5. acceptance (Fine, dammit.  We’ll buy enough clothes for now, and toiletries, and I guess I can do without my precious laptop for three more months, and let’s sit down and change all the $%^&* passwords we can think of so the thieves can’t do more damage).

My “precious laptop” had been backed up pretty often to the “Cloud,” thanks to Breck’s google-doc system, but some documents and many photos from the last eight months are now just plain gone.  (Yes, we had also backed our computers up to a hard drive, but alas,  the thieves got the hard drive too–it was packed away in our luggage.) The best photos have been saved here, on this blog, which lives in the Cloud, too.  Meanwhile, our son Jackson, who was robbed four years ago in Minneapolis,  helped me remotely lock my computer, and walked me through creating backup systems I should have had in place before now.  He is a gem.  Here he is with our soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Mackenzie:


And Lynnell and I are both fine.  Uninjured.  It’s just stuff and arrangements.  Lynnell said she had double-trauma: first, getting all her belongings stolen; then realizing she would have to go shopping, something she hates. But Jennifer, who is shopping-savvy and highly-organized, shepherded her through two big-box stores, Decathalon and H&M. and they managed to buy just about everything she needed (plus more!) in less than three hours.

Yesterday, we went to see an English-speaking doctor who wrote new prescriptions for the medications we had been carrying.  The appointment cost us $50, and the Rx were filled down the street in ten minutes for one-fourth the cost of what it would be in the USA.  We said goodbye to Carter and Jennifer, and I found a Big and Tall store with great stuff, and then bought some wedding bowties made in the back room of the shop.

Other than being shellshocked, really, we have had a great time.  The “kids” were so utterly sane and adult, so adept at finding amazing restaurants and patiently waiting in line for them (and it was worth it, just to savor the pasta).  They also love walking, and this is a great city for it.  We saw the Pope on Sunday, at St. Peter’s, in his white Popemobile, waving and encouraging the faithful to work for justice in the world and nurture their inner lives so they wouldn’t burn out.  Good advice for us, too.  We saw the Colosseum, which is bigger than I could have imagined, and its history is so gruesome.  We spent a long time in the Pantheon, which has been perfectly preserved for 1800+ years, and couldn’t get enough of that shaft of sunlight coming in through the circular opening at the top of the dome.


We took a slow walking tour of the ruins of the Roman Forum, and sat in the sun while the “kids” bought a very cool gift for someone back home who might be reading this.  We will be eternally grateful to these two for parenting us through our ordeal.


We will get around to writing about our four days in Istanbul.  Lynnell is giving me her laptop every morning, and I will find pictures from wikimedia to replace my stolen ones, and will properly cite my usage.  We might write about our two days in Figueres, Spain, where we learned that Salvador Dalí was an amazing artist and despicable human being.  Figueres was where we waited for our van to be ready at the VW dealer, after having flown from Istanbul to Barcelona to resume VanLife.

But Rome is a wonderful city, loud and full of tourists following guides, and full of monuments to the vanity of men who built maybe the greatest empire ever by systematically stealing from others and then building infrastructure that lasts for ages.


This is Nero: a paranoic, thief, bigot, liar, and very cruel, humorless man.  The pigeon and the graffito “Hi” made me smile.

Holy Week in the Eastern Mode

Unlike a Catholic or Protestant church, there are no pews, no booklets, no projection screens.  No announcements.  Lots of icons; fewer stained-glass windows.  We’re worshipping in the lands where Christianity was invented: the eastern end of the Roman Empire.  The Mediterranean world of flat bread, wine, and olive oil.  The great centers of faith were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, where people spoke Greek.  Rome wasn’t even the capital of the Roman after Constantine gave up trying to defend it from Barbarians.   He moved the capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself.

For the past ten days, we’ve been taking part in a course at St. George’s Anglican College in Arab East Jerusalem.  With twelve others, mostly Americans, we’ve traced Jesus’ last week and explored the liturgies of six Orthodox branches of Christendom: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian.

Communion of Saints Icon, Holy Saturday, Russian Orthodox church

The worship services we visited were a kind of dance between solo and ensemble.  On the one hand, a choir or two and a group of clergy follow the service: an ancient sequence of chants.  On the other hand, individual people come and go, taking care of spiritual business around the church.  So you see people quietly whispering a prayer in front of an icon, crossing themselves or kissing the painting.  You see people bowing and even prostrating themselves, like Muslims at prayer.  They light long, slender tapered candles and place them in bowls of sand.  Scott Gunn Candle woman(Photo credit below: Scott Gunn)

And then someone in silk vestments catches everyone’s attention by swinging a thurible full of incense, three times in each of three directions.  As the choral music swells, the celebrant, perhaps wearing a crown or a brocaded hood, sweeps out of the doors from the mostly-concealed sanctum, and redirects the chant in a booming voice.


In the picture below, the Armenian Patriarch prepares to wash the feet of his twelve bishops, humbling his otherwise very exalted self on Holy Thursday as Jesus did.

Armenian Patriarch will wash the feet of his twelve bishops

Virtually every member of the cast is male in an Orthodox liturgy, though at the Russian service, a nun carried the Patriarch’s staff when he was not using it.  I was struck by the sacred seriousness of everything, but despite all the formality and traditions, people seemed at home.  It was like going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving: you dress up a little more, and remember not to slouch, and it’s just the same as last year, but that doesn’t make it boring.

We were surprised at the number of folks filming the services on their cell phones.  A young deacon, when he wasn’t moving a lectern or carrying a candle, seemed to be documenting everything.  I wondered if he would use the film later to prepare for next year, when he’d have a bigger role.  We were in our own private devotional worlds, where the veil between the visible and Icon of St. Gerasimus in Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Jerusaleminvisible worlds is thinner than usual.  You look at Mary’s sad eyes in a painting, or close your own eyes and listen to the singing.  It’s all in a minor key, which makes the prayer seem more profound, despite the fact that you don’t know any Armenian or Russian.

Most of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings or mosaics: pictures of bearded men and veiled women, most with haloes and carrying symbols of their own struggles with the selfish distractions and obsessions of life.  Prominent are the fathers and mothers of the early church who retreated to the desert, seeking enlightenment in poverty.  The faces aren’t looking at you, but they are watching over you, somehow. Scripture calls them the great cloud of witnesses.  They chanted these very melodies, five hundred, a thousand, and even fifteen hundred years ago, in walled cities and caves in the desert.  Some were severe zealots trembling before a harsh divine judge, but many were open-hearted healers of the sick, or drum-majors for justice.

On the left is the monastic guru St. Gerasimus, who left his wealthy parents in Lycia, Asia Minor, to seek a more honest and compassionate life in the desert.  He was said to have tamed a lion by extracting a thorn from its paw.

One of the most dramatic rituals of Orthodox Holy Week comes when the Greek Patriarch enters the tomb where the crucified Jesus was laid.  He emerges with a new fire, which is transferred by candles, Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.53.38 AMlamps, and lanterns to waiting congregations all over Jerusalem, and also flown by jet to Athens, Moscow, and the New World.  We learned that archaeologists believe it quite likely that this, or one of the tombs within a fifty-foot radius, was the resting place of Jesus.  Here is the Holy Fire just after it arrived in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral a mile west of where it was kindled.

Compared to our westernized worship, the Orthodox are much more into the sacredness of beauty.  More interested in mystery than belief.  They are swimming in spirituality.

For me, the point of Holy Week is that by following the actions of Jesus and his followers closely, I can better understand why he didn’t flinch from a fate I am sure he knew was coming.  If God could take on human form, Huston Smith once wrote, this is what God would look like:

  • a suffering servant, to whom no one was too lowly to care for
  • a critic of the empires that worship wealth, violence, and dominance
  • a spiritual doctor of paradoxical wisdom who unerringly seemed to know when prescriptions of yin or yang were indicated.

Jesus accepted the phony trials, the mob’s braying, and Pontius Pilate’s cynical hand-washing gesture.  And a few days after dying, he began appearing in some strange new form, a resurrected being.  He had been divine, after all.  An icon.

This week has confirmed my intuition that something very mysterious and inspiring happened.  Before that, resurrection had just been a theory: at the end of time, God will reunite bodies and souls.  Hundreds and soon thousands of people became convinced that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and passion were, in fact, a vision of the eternal goodness, truth, and beauty of The One in whose image we are made.

At its best, religion gives us windows that help us see that One.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted company a thousand years ago.  It was really political, although there were church matters at stake: Latin or vernacular?  Pope or Councils?  Filioque or not?

They quit looking THROUGH the windows.  All they could manage was to look AT each other’s windows.  Or to use one of Jesus’ best metaphors, they complained about the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the log in their own.

It’s been eye-opening for me to come to the East and look through some ancient windows which are new to me.

LM inside Christ Anglican Church, Nazareth

Lynnell and I met at Christ Church, Detroit in 1983.  We took this picture two weeks ago at our sister parish, Christ Church, Nazareth–Jesus’ home town–34 years later.


Why my Palestinian guide can’t take his seven year old to the zoo and other thoughts on being on the West Bank

SurfingPoem/grafitti on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem

by Lynnell Mickelsen

We’ve spent the last two weeks in Israel, a country I long vowed to avoid until its government started doing right by the Palestinians.

It hasn’t. We came anyways. And I actually don’t regret it because I’ve learned a lot.

A preface: I know it’s risky to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recommended method is to carefully and delicately parse every word because, after all, the Holocaust was horrible; both sides commit atrocities, and a lot of people grew up with the whole “Land without a people for a people without a land” story via the young, blue-eyed Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan in “Exodus,“ (circa 1960) and really, who wants to mess with that primal piece of mythology?


So in America, we mostly don’t talk about this conflict, which, not coincidentally, tends to serve the status quo.

Anyhow, my response is as follows: It is complicated. Both sides have done horrible things. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.

And the current level of injustice is starkly lopsided. The numbers of dead, injured, jailed and dispossessed are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the equation and Americans in particular almost never hear the Palestinian side of the story.

Soooo…. with all that as a preface: we spent our first three days in Israel traveling in the West Bank with a great outfit called Green Olive Tours.  I don’t know where to begin, so let’s talk about license plate colors, water tanks and walls.

1) The color of your license plate really matters. Israeli citizens get yellow license plates. Yellow plates rock. With a yellow plate, you are free to move about the country.

In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank get white (or green for cabs) license plates. White or green plates are a drag because it means you aren’t allowed to drive on Israeli roads without a special permit from the Israeli army, which tends not to grant such things very often.  In the map below, Israeli plates get you onto yellow and red roads.  Palestinian plates keep you on white roads or carefully-watched on red ones.


image from TheOtherSite

But it’s not just about cars. Palestinians in the West Bank also aren’t allowed to walk on Israeli roads or take public transportation into Israel without the special permit.

For the record, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Three million Palestinians currently live in the West Bank. Under Israeli rules, they spend most of their lives confined to a chunk of land about the size of the state of Delaware. An additional two million Palestinians in Gaza live under even harsher restrictions in an even smaller space. But we didn’t get to Gaza, so in this post, I’ll just talk about the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inability to freely move around makes it hard for Palestinians on the West Bank to hold a decent job or participate in any kind of modern economy. I mean, they are cut off from all major Israeli cities. Even working in tourism based in the West Bank is difficult.

For example, our Green Olive Tour to Hebron and Bethlehem started out from Jerusalem because that’s where almost all tourists are staying. But our guide couldn’t meet us there. Muhannad has a car and lives a mere ten miles from Jerusalem, but he’s not allowed to enter Israel’s second-largest city.

So in order for Muhannad to do his tour guide gig, Green Olive, which is committed to using West Bank guides, had to hire a driver with a yellow Israeli license plate to make the 20-minute trip to the military checkpoint where Muhannad was waiting for us. We transferred to his car, which was parked next to this large, scary red sign with a message in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

West Bank red sign

“Okay, just for starters. the Palestinian Authority doesn’t ban Israelis from traveling into the West Bank.”  Muhannad said, pointing to the sign. “The Israeli government bans them, in part because it doesn’t want its citizens to see what happens here. And it puts this sign up in English to scare as many tourists away as possible and convince everyone it’s too dangerous to be in the Palestinian territories.”

Muhannad is a trim man in his early 40s who speaks quickly and in perfect English. He was born near Bethlehem. He and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 9. Like so many Palestinians stuck in the West Bank with its high unemployment rates, they went overseas to find work. Their nine-year-old son was born in Denver and is a U.S. citizen.

Muhannad and his wife loved living and working in Colorado. But they missed their families and as Palestinians they also felt torn about living abroad. Ever since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis have been squeezing Palestinians economically and hoping they’ll immigrate. Living abroad felt like a form of capitulation. So they came home.

But it’s not easy living in a place where one’s daily life is subjected to the whims of the Israeli army, imposed by soliders carrying automatic weapons, most of whom are young men in their late teens and 20s with all the wisdom and maturity that implies. And as his kids get older, Muhannad sometimes wonders if coming home was the right choice.

“For example…. our seven-year-old son is just learning how to read and is crazy about animals,” he said. “So he went online and discovered there was a zoo in Jerusalem that had lions and elephants. He begged us to take him there. It’s only 10 miles away.”

Muhannad and his wife are Christians; the Israelis traditionally allow Palestinian Christians to apply for travel permits to Jerusalem twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. So they figured that was their best chance to take him to the zoo. “But he’s just a little boy,” Muhannad said. “So he kept saying ‘why do we have to wait until Christmas? Why can’t we go this weekend?’”

Which brought Muhannad and his wife to the dilemma that every Palestinian parent in the West Bank and Gaza faces: at what age do you tell your children that they are effectively sealed in? That simple trips like going to a nearby zoo…or playing on the sand beaches of the Mediterranean which are a tantalizing 50 miles away are difficult or impossible for them…simply because they’re Palestinian?

cycle palestine 2015 317photo:

2) Ye shall know them by their water tanks. If you drive around the West Bank for any period of time, you’ll notice that in some towns, every house has a big black plastic water tank on the roof. We saw this on multiple trips and our Palestinian guides said it was because the Israeli government controls the water supply and regularly cuts off the water to Palestinian homes without notice.

So people use their water tank reserve supply until it goes back on, which is usually in 24-72 hours. The tanks are plastic because a) they’re cheaper; b) if bored Israeli soldiers decide to shoot holes in your family’s water tank, people have learned it’s easier and faster to glue on a plastic patch than try to weld on a metal one.

Cut-offs can happen weekly, so most Palestinians carefully ration and monitor their water use, especially in the hot summer. On the West Bank, no one takes long, leisurely showers.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. No one with black plastic water tanks takes long leisurely showers. About 400,000 Israeli Jewish citizens also live in the West Bank in so-called “settlements” where the only tanks on their roofs are small, white solar water heaters. Cut-offs don’t seem to happen in the settlements; their water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thus the fastest way to tell if a West Bank community is Jewish or Palestinian is to just look at their roofs.

A few years ago, Muhannad said he came home to find his wife near tears. It was a hot summer day and their sons wanted her to fill up their bathtub with cool water and let them play. But she was afraid to risk using so much water—there had been so many cut-offs, they needed to save as much as possible just for drinking.

Look at us, his wife said, we can’t even let our kids play in a bathtub. Meanwhile, the children in the settlements have swimming pools.

The word “settlement” makes these communities sound quaint and rustic, but they look more like large, sprawling gated suburbs, albeit surrounded by high walls and razor-wire fences, and guarded by soldiers. Settlements can easily have 10,000 or more residents. They often come with their own shopping malls, office buildings, schools, libraries, public parks, beautifully irrigated gardens, tennis courts, artistic fountains in roundabouts, and swimming pools.

settlement poolHilltop water tower (no tanks necessary), apartment buildings, and public swimming pool complex at Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish settlement, population, 37,000, photo from

Under international law, none of these Israeli settlements are legal because they’ve been built on Palestinian-owned land illegally seized from its owners and controlled by an occupying army. But the Israeli government continues to seize land and build more.

In addition to the 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, another 350,000 settlers live in houses and land in East Jerusalem, almost all of it illegally taken from Palestinian owners. Combine the two areas and you have three-quarters of a million Israelis living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law.

The settlements are a huge barrier to any hope of creating an independent Palestinian state. Which is precisely why the right-wing Israeli governments keep building more.

The stark contrast between the lives of Palestinians (whose families have lived on the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years) and Jewish settlers (who are often recent immigrants from the U.S. or Russia) can make the military occupation even more unbearable for the Palestinian side.  Jewish settlers get yellow license plates and are free to commute back and forth from Jerusalem on yellow-plates-only roads like this one we took to Nablus:

The government builds these special highways to let settlers more easily drive around or through Palestinian areas. It posts thousands of soldiers and guards at military checkpoints, to make sure Palestinians stay in their restricted zones.

And then there’s the Wall. Even though I’ve read a lot about the Wall, I was still shocked by the massive barrier that snakes, and stretches, and envelopes the West Bank.

West Bank wall yahooWest Bank Wall; photo: Yahoo News

3) With a length of over 400 miles, the West Bank Barrier is four times longer than the Berlin Wall; nearly half the length of the old barrier between East and West Germany. Built at the cost of $2.6 billion, it’s the single largest infrastructure project in Israeli history.

The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising when Israelis were being terrorized by suicide bombing attacks. The government first said it needed it for security, but it soon started also using the wall as a way to advance and secure more settlements, which is why the wall has kept expanding.

The wall has made the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable and prison-like, cutting off more roads and turning what was once an easy ten-minute commute to schools or work or to visit elderly parents into hour-long detours.

LM Bethlehem wall jpggraffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem

But has it worked for the Israelis?

In the short run…. maybe. The suicide bombings have drastically decreased, although whether that’s due to the wall or better security and infiltration of terrorist groups by Israeli’s Shin Bet is hard to say. Hundreds of Palestinian laborers regularly sneak over the wall to take day jobs in Israel, so it would still seem possible for someone to climb over with a vest full of explosives. And random acts of violence still happen here—as they happen all over the world.

In the long run…honestly, I don’t know see how any of this is sustainable.

In two months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its “victory” in the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to its capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But how has that victory turned out?

For 50 years, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians in these captured areas in limbo; not allowing them to become citizens of Israel or a free Palestinian state; controlling them ever more ruthlessly; and building bigger, longer walls. But this the process has also transformed Israel into a country that veers ever farther from functioning as a democracy and ever-closer to an apartheid state.

Jerusalem, South Africa Bag

Israel is also facing a demographic dilemma. This year, the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel proper is about 6.5 million—or roughly the same number as Israeli Jews. But Palestinians have a higher birth rate; by 2020, they are predicted to outnumber Israeli Jews, putting Israel on a collision course with the very reason for its existence.

Israel was founded as Jewish state; it gives preferential treatment and refuge to Jews, who have historically suffered from discrimination around the world.  This systematic bias has always been problematic. But what will it look like as Jews increasingly become a powerful, well-armed minority that denies basic human rights to the majority of people it controls?

I’m writing this in Jerusalem during Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and it’s hard not to ponder how things change over history and roles reverse.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

And I’m writing this on Easter morning, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, one of the biggest plot reversals in human history. And it’s hard not to wonder about how death becomes life and vice versa.

little Palestinian boy

This is a place with a history that goes back thousands of years. So 50 or 100 years is just a blink of an eye. I don’t know what will happen next or when. But as W. B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem: the center cannot hold; the ceremony of innocence has drowned.

Meanwhile, Muhannad’s nine-year-old son is  thinking about his Second Coming. He was born in Denver. He knows he’s an American citizen. He’s already imagining a life without checkpoints and soldiers. His dream, says Muhannad, is to live in a country where he can drive to the beach.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

This Year In Jerusalem

At the end of Passover seders all around the world, Jews express a fond hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.”  This is not, I have recently learned, a geographical aspiration.  It is a spiritual vow: may we find ourselves a year from today in peace, living with integrity with our neighbors.  My friend Rabbi Avi Olitzky told the kids at Breck a few years ago, don’t think that Passover is just about how ‘we were once slaves, but now we’re free.’  There is a part of each of us that’s Pharaoh, too.  

Wise words for a financially-fortunate, white, Christian, American, heterosexual couple in good health to ponder as the moon reaches full this Passover.

Just because you are in Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, does not mean you’ve arrived.  Jews living here don’t say anything different at the end of the meal.  They, too, say “Next year,” because “Jerusalem” refers to a state of shalom, peace, nirvana, or wholeness that, Lord knows, is not yet here.

Walking home from dinner last night at St. George’s Anglican College in the Holy City, I snapped this photo of the Passover Moon:

Passover Moon

Lynnell and I are taking a ten-day course at St. George’s called “Easter Fire,” referring to the tradition of kindling a new flame on the eve of Easter in churches all over the world.  By coincidence, Passover, Orthodox Easter, and Western Easter all fall in the same week this year.  Every day, our group of thirteen pilgrims from the US, Canada, and Australia visits several sacred places in or near Jerusalem to get a clearer sense of the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, healings, death, and resurrection.

Today, for example, we visited the place of his baptism, and saw these two white doves:

Flying Doves at Jordan Baptism Site (Israel Side)

We renewed our own baptismal vows, promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to persevere in resisting evil, and to work for peace and justice in the world.  All very sobering vows.  Later we sat in silence atop this mountain in the desert above Jericho.  Our Chaplain reminded us that the prophet Elijah had found refuge in a cave right here, before traveling to the mountain where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.  Another translation calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  Jesus also sought the quiet of the desert in these hills, trying to make sense of his vision of a dove coming down on him at his baptism, and a voice calling him “Beloved Son.”  We only had a half hour, but we looked down on cliffside caves, huts, and a modern monastery where for 1700 years monks and nuns have sought the voice of God by fleeing the noise of daily life.   I felt serene and wise until a pushy teenager who’d pestered us on the hike up the hill mocked the way I told him “no thank you.”  He was having a bad day, I guess, frustrated at not selling anything.  Jesus wouldn’t have laughed at him like I did.

Yesterday, we climbed up and down the Mount of Olives with thousands of others recreating Palm Sunday, passing this Jewish cemetery along the way.  Visitors leave stones instead of flowers, honoring the dead.

Jewish Cemetery on Mount of Olives Facing Dome of the Rock Shrine, Palm Sunday

We got to the bottom of that steep hill and then began climbing again, through a Muslim cemetery.  Since the Messiah is expected to take this very path, being resurrected on the last day on the slopes below the Holy City puts you at the front of the line!  Our Palm Sunday procession ended up at the Lions’ Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

St. Stephen's or Lion's Gate, Jerusalem's East Side

The day before, we had paraded from a church in Bethany, a couple miles east of Jerusalem, to the tomb of Lazarus, a tiny passageway into a stone tomb too claustrophobic-sounding for us.  These boys had a good perch, though, and we had a great cup of Arabic coffee while waiting for our braver fellow pilgrims to enter and emerge.

Boys above Processional Crowd at Lazarus' Tomb below the Separation Wall

The Separation Wall is visible above the white car at the far right, up the hill.  A guy who works at the college used to have a ten-minute commute from this town.  Because of the Wall and checkpoints, it now takes him an hour on a good day, and two hours a few times a month.

The day before that, before our course started at St. George’s, Lynnell and I paid a visit to Christ Anglican Church in Nazareth, an historic Palestinian Christian center of education and worship which was once the sister parish of our own Christ Church Detroit.  We had coffee with Fr. Nael, and I snapped this picture from behind the altar.

Celebrant's View of Christ Church, Nazareth

We also visited a replica (below) of the synagogue of Jesus’ youth in Nazareth.  In those days, synagogues were more community gathering places than houses of worship.  That role was played by the grand Temple in Jerusalem, recently expanded by King Herod.  But within a couple of generations of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jewish rebellions against oppressive Roman rule led to the catastrophic destruction of that Temple in 70 CE; and synagogues like this one took on the role of housing prayer, study, and celebration for Jewish communities all over the world.  Here some Christian pilgrims from Hong Kong heard about Jesus’ first public preaching in his hometown.  He didn’t win any converts.  In fact, his neighbors, having known him since infancy, didn’t buy his new role as rabbi, healer, and prophet.  He didn’t call himself Messiah quite yet, but that would have really angered them.

Model of Nazareth Synagogue

In Nazareth, we stayed in this guest house, called al-Mutran in honor of the Arabic word for Bishop, whose house is next door.  The Old City of Nazareth is full of great cuisine, amazing churches and mosques, and not nearly enough tourists.

View from guest parlor, al-Mutran Guest House, Nazareth


February and March in Pictures

You can see captions by hovering your cursor or clicking on each photo.  Most of these pictures haven’t been in the blog yet.  Thanks to our loyal readers.  Four Months To Go!