Travel with Mona, visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land

Many trips to Israel and the Middle East had often been canceled or postponed because of political turmoil or instability. When a Canadian friend told us about a group from Montreal organizing a guided tourist visit to the Holy Land in March 2010, my husband and I found it an excellent opportunity to finally travel safely through the region.

We flew from New York to Amman, Jordan, where we met the eighteen people coming from Canada. The next day we boarded our comfortable bus and visited Petra that I described in a previous blog. From there we continued along the King Hussein Bridge between Jordan and Israel. The security was very tight with x-ray scanning, questioning and bag searches and passport control.

Monastery of the Temptation
 The sycamore-fig tree or  Zacchaeus tree

We stopped for lunch in Jericho, commonly known as “the oldest city in the world” (8000 BCE) and the world’s lowest city (1200 feet under sea level).” Jericho is a Palestinian city in the West Bank, an important historical, cultural, and political center located northwest of the Dead Sea. It is truly a place where the ancient past comes in contact with the immediate present and where the fragrance of oranges and citrus permeates the air.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon at the Dead Sea shore. The sea water is rich in minerals and salt, and so muddy. The mud is cleaned and sold as an anti-wrinkle facial cream at $90 the small jar. [Yes, I bought a jar. It didn’t erase a single line.]

The Dome of the Rock or Masgad El Aksa. A cabinet within the building houses a hair from the prophet Mohamad’s beard. Another tradition suggests it’s the mountain where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac.
A view of Jerusalem from Mount Olive

Finally we entered Jerusalem in the early night and checked in our hotel that was fully booked for the week. For our bad luck, millions of Christian pilgrims and orthodox Jews had flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate the Catholic Easter, Orthodox Easter, and Passover that all occurred on that same week in the year 2010. The hotel manager had programmed the elevators to stop at each floor in respect for the Jewish patrons who were not allowed to operate the lift. Imagine the slow traffic, going up and down.

In the morning we boarded our bus and headed to Nazareth where we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and in the lowest floor an ancient house that tradition says is the site of the angelic announcement. Not far from it, we visited the Church of St. Joseph, the site of the Holy Family’s house and St. Joseph’s workshop. Later we had lunch on the Lake of Tiberias, and then drove through the verdant hills of Galilea, where we visited three more churches.

Lunch of fish on the Lake Tiberias known for its rough waves.

We spent the evening on the shore of the Jordan River. Many pilgrims wore a white robe to be baptized or renew their baptism vows in the Jordan River.

Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Tiberias, through which the Jordan River flows.

The next day, we stopped by St. John the Baptist Church, built over the house where he was born. We climbed 154 steps to the Church of the Visitation. Inside the church, 41 plaques, each in a different language, bear the Magnificat.

We visited the Museum of Jerusalem and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, then admired a small model –maquette– of Old Jerusalem, with the Temple, Pilate’s fortress, Herod’ s Castle, and the walls of Jerusalem.

We continued to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.

The Church of the Nativity is built above a cave which may have been the place of Jesus’ nativity.
The church was built by Queen Helena in 329, and renovated by the Crusaders. The cave includes two lobes, one with a star marks the place of Jesus’ birth, the other marks the place of the manger.

We passed by the Shepherd’s Field where the sheep and goats used to grate.

Later the hotel offered us a tour of Jerusalem by night, with a stop at Mount Olive. We crossed some villages, stopped by Victoria Hospital and Masada. We saw a temple, built by an American philanthropist on the model of the initial Temple of Solomon. It is said that the Masgad el Aksa, the mosque with the golden dome, was built on the location of the former temple.

On Holy Thursday, we returned to Mount Olive, visited a Jewish cemetery, walked by the Eastern Wall, and the Wailing Wall.

A Jewish crowd
A Christian crowd

We spent Good Friday walking through the Via Dolorosa and visiting old churches, and spent Friday evening and Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre .

Strolling along the narrow lanes of Via Dolorosa
A view of the Church of Holy Sepulcher
from Mount Olive
The Chapel built on top of Christ’s Tomb in the center of the Holy Sepulcher

It would take ten blogs to describe all that we’ve seen and learned during that week spent in Jerusalem and its surroundings. An amazing trip that will remain imprinted in my memory forever.

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The Beauty of … Giving

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, it’s time to focus on the quickly approaching holiday season. The to-do lists are filling, at least mine is, with baking, shopping, and scheduling time to see my nearest and dearest family and friends.

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I was reminiscing about the holiday seasons that meant the most to me. The ones that became the stories we tell our children and grandchildren. The ones that will be spoken of for generations.

What I came to realize is, with a few exceptions, many of my favorite memories are the ones where my family and I gave to others. The times where we helped someone less fortunate than ourselves.

As a family, we collected food for local food banks, provided gifts through Angel Tree or the Marine’s Toys-For-Tots, or baked cookies for our neighbors and friends. These activities brought joy to others as well as ourselves for being able to help them.

So this year, I hope we all take a few minutes to think about what we can do to give back to others who may not be as fortunate as we are. Whether your act of kindness is big or small, helping others will bring you joy.

Wishing you and yours a blessed holiday season.

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Family Christmas

In elementary school, one of our teachers used to ask the class to write a paper about the meaning of Christmas. What does Christmas mean to you? This sentence still echoes in my ears after so many years. I had no trouble filling the pages, writing how my grandparents organized Christmas for their family of six children and families. Christmas meant getting together with the many cousins, enjoying a fun time, a delicious dinner, innumerable cookies and desserts. “Christmas is family time,” my grandmother often repeated. Yet she always added to her guest list the friends and neighbors that were on their own on Christmas day.  

And then my grandfather passed. A year later, my mother took over. The Christmas get-together moved to my parents’ house, with my grandmother’s menu and a few new recipes. By then I was married with small children. So were the invited cousins. The reunions continued, with thirty guests attending, all related — my children playing with their relatives, creating life-long bonds of friendship within the family.

When my dad passed, Mom lost the desire and energy to prepare big gatherings. It was my turn to maintain the tradition that came with a lot of work but so much joy for children and parents. For the last thirty years, I’ve been starting the cooking and baking three weeks before Christmas. Even after we retired and moved to Florida, our children and relatives kept visiting for the holidays. This year, I will entertain twenty-five guests on Christmas Eve, relatives and a few lonely friends. My daughter will handle the Christmas Day dinner. The family reunion continues with my grandchildren befriending the cousins’ kids.

Christmas meant family togetherness for church, dinner, and play, when I was a school kid, and it still has the same meaning. My grandmother must be smiling from up there at my grandchildren and her many descendants bonding together.

Yes, the holiday preparations can be exhausting. What do you do after a long day of preparation? Wouldn’t it be nice to lounge in front of a fire or curl onto a couch or even in bed with a sweet romance novel, forget the latest lousy news and escape into a warm Christmas story that would cheer you up and reassure you there is still love in this world?
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Here are a few warm Christmas stories to lift your heart:

 

 

The Christmas Coat

A Sweet Christmas Story to share

I’m not sure who wrote this – a friend sent it to me in an email – but it’s worth passing forward. Whether it’s fiction or fact, it brought happy tears to my eyes. If you know who the author is/was, please let me know in the comments. In the end, all we have is our story, our name, and what we gave away.
An old boy was fumbling around one day
In a women’s clothing store.
He’d found his wife a Christmas coat
And was headed for the door
When he bumped into a little boy
That looked like he was lost
And he said “Mister can you help me
Find out how much something costs?
Here it is almost Christmas
And the nights are gettin cold
Winter time is on us
And my mom don’t have a coat
I’ve been workin for the neighbors
And saving for a time.”
And in his tiny, outstretched hand
Was a dollar and a dime.
His gaze went from that big eyed boy
To that pretty Christmas coat
And he finally cleared away the lump
That had gathered in his throat.
He said, “Son,
that’s just what this coat costs.
We’re lucky that we found ‘er.”
And he turned around and gave a wink
To the lady at the counter.
She put it in a pretty box
And wrapped it up just so
And went off in the back
And found a big red Christmas bow.
He said “I thank you for your help, sir
And I kindly thank you, ma’am.
I hope y’all are gonna have a big Christmas
‘Cause now I know I am.”
Well, the old boy walked home busted
Except for the dollar and the dime
Thinking he’d just have to buy
The coat another time.
He told his wife that Christmas this year
Wouldn’t be much fun.
He gently took her in his arms
And told her what he’d done.
She said, “Why you old softie.
I wouldn’t trade you for a farm.
I’ve got two or three old coats
And your love to keep me warm.”
She put that money in a matchbox
And placed it beneath their tree
And said “That is the grandest gift
You’ve ever given me.”
The years went by like years will do
When people are in love.
Their marriage was a golden bond
That was forged by God above.
Then one day came some bitter news
That filled his heart with fright.
The doctor told the old man’s wife
That she was going to lose her sight.
He said, “There’s an operation we can do
But it puts me on the spot
‘Cause it’s a quite complex procedure
And it’s going to cost a lot.”
The old man said, “Doctor, I’m a failure.
I’ve made no preparation.
We don’t have the money
For that kind of an operation.”
The doctor got the strangest look
And he sat there for a while.
And then he slowly nodded,
And he broke out in a smile
He said, “Why sir, you can’t fool me.
You’re a very wealthy man.
You long ago invested
In the world’s best savings plan.
I’ll see she gets the best of care.
She’s going to be just fine.
And the total cost to you, old friend
Is a dollar and a dime.”
The old man stared in disbelief
Then he recognized that smile,
The one he’d seen those years ago
On a loving, thoughtful child.
He said, “What you gave to me that day
Was more than just a coat.
You gave me the gift of giving
And you gave my mother hope.
My mother’d been mistreated,
Neglected and abused.
But she gave life just one more chance
And it was all because of you.
Now every year she takes that coat
And lays it beneath our tree.
It represents to us the things

That Christmas ought to be.
She says that when we leave this world
For a better home someday,
The only things that we’ll take with us
Are the things we gave away.”

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