Holy Land Kitsch

The Holy Land is mostly a fraud– a willing suspension of disbelief that allows you to believe that something happened at this exact spot and, therefore, this exact spot is holy.

Stephen, one of the drivers who takes us to radio stations around the West Bank said “I hope you’re not Protestants because Protestants don’t seem to believe as much in these holy places.”  Then he pointed to a gate in the Old City wall and said “that’s where Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.”

I said, “But that gate was built in the 16th century.”


But to make my point, the “Upper Room” on Mt. Zion (where Christ has his “Last Supper”) is in a building built in 1099 by the crusaders.  King David’s Tomb is on the first floor of the same building.  Willing suspension of disbelief.  Personally I don’t hold any plot of land sacred, but the closest I saw in the Holy Land was in the Garden of Gethsemane where there are 8 olive trees, each over 2,000 years old.  That age deserves respect.

In Jerusalem disbelief takes a lot of willing suspension because of the tackiness that surrounds the holy sites. If Christ returns he will be carrying his cross through a shopping mall full of strange religious curiosities (“buy your widow’s mite coins here.”)  Suzi had to fend off a man who actually grabbed her to try to pull her into his shop on the Via Delarosa, the Street of Sorrows, where Christ is believed to have borne his cross. (The route has been redirected over the centuries, and not because of new archaeological evidence.)  He kept saying, “I am Armenian, a Christian, you must buy from me, Armenian, Armenian.”

In Bethlehem, right off Manger Square, John the Baptist, St. Patrick and King David namesake stores sell souvenirs and the Holy Land Tattoo Parlor urges you to “Get your holy cross tattoo in time for Easter.”  There is also the “Holy Family Hotel” where, presumably, there is always room at the inn.  Manger Square also has its “Stars and Bucks” café.  But the best thing about Manger Square is an anonymous little falafel stand.  The folks at Holy Land Trust, along with almost everyone else, recommended it.  It is the highlight of the Bethlehem experience.  The proprietors don’t display religious tchotchkes to lure you in, it’s just two old gentlemen making falafel and squeezing fresh oranges.  They have been doing it for at least 45 years.  Two refugees who left Palestine in 1967 said it was Manger Square falafel they longed for while settling into their new lives in the States.

While most of the religious tchotchkes are Christian (I know, that doesn’t quite sound right) Jews are not immune from Holy Land kitsch.  You can buy yarmulkes favoring the New York Mets, Boston Celtics or Barak Obama, or a “Guns and Moses” “t” shirt.

The most honest store I found was in West Jerusalem, “Lord Kitsch.”  It is an upscale woman’s fashion store.

I wrote this as part of a 2010 letter. There are some “real” places in Jerusalem, aside from the Garden of Gethsemane, like the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock. I will post about these places later.


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