The Grotto And The Wall

Palestine3Bethlehem, Palestine – June 2010

As we approach the checkpoint, the taxi driver hands us some brochures. “It’s a Jewish tourist place,” he explains. “I can take you there, if you want.”

My husband and I glance at the brochures. “No, thanks.” I say. “We don’t have time. We’re driving up to Nazareth later.”

The taxi driver nods. “Okay. But keep those. If they ask, say that’s where we’re going or they might not let us through.”

Ours is the only vehicle at the checkpoint. A young female guard leans back in her chair, an assault rifle balanced across her legs. She has long curly blonde hair and a large gap between her front teeth. The other guard is a tall, thin man. He asks the taxi driver a couple of questions. The woman barks a couple of sentences at the young man. She smiles as she does this and leans further back in her chair. He looks from her to the taxi driver and back at her.Β The taxi driver’s grip tightens on the wheel. His smile is nervous.

Finally, they wave us through. The taxi driver glances in the rearview mirror a couple of times as we drive away. “They were making jokes,” he says. “I think the girl is from Poland. Many students from Eastern Europe come here in the summer.”


When we get to Manger Square, the taxi driver leaves us with a tour guide. He introduces himself as Joseph. He takes us to the Milk Grotto, and then into the cave chapels underneath the Church of the Nativity. He is soft-spoken and melancholy. From time to time he excuses himself to take quick phone calls. With each phone call he becomes more preoccupied.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yes.” He pauses and looks at me intently. “No, actually. I’m not. My wife is in the hospital in Jordan. She’s about to go into surgery. After our tour, I will go home.”

“I’m sorry. You can’t go to Jordan?”

He shakes his head. “Come, we will go to see Jesus’ birthplace now.”

The line for the grotto stretches across Manger Square. Joseph looks at the line and shakes his head. He motions for us to follow him to the front. I avert my eyes from the people in line. I despise people who cut in line. But maybe since he’s an official guide, we have this privilege. I don’t ask, because I don’t want to know. No one protests as we edge ourselves in among those who are about to descend into the grotto. Most of them are retirees. A big-boned woman with the face of a bulldog and a camera hanging around her neck pushes her way in front of us as we enter the grotto.

The big woman swats at the rest of us. “Wait! Get back! Czekaj!” she shrieks. It’s not enough that we stay out of the photo, she doesn’t want any of us in the manger area. She takes her time snapping some photos and then moves to the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. It is marked by a silver Star of Bethlehem. “Czekaj! Czekaj! GET BACK!”

I look at the others. They bow their heads and close their eyes. I glare at the woman, and clamp my mouth shut, because the words that want to come out do not belong in this place. I will not further contaminate the atmosphere for these people who have probably waited all of their lives to see this. I will not disrespect this sacred site.

Joseph frowns. “Are you okay?”

I force a smile. My husband gives my shoulders a quick squeeze. He is well aware of the restraint that I’m showing.

Finally, the woman lowers her camera and stalks out. I hand my husband the camera. I don’t feel like taking photos anymore. I touch my hand to the silver star and then step back.

(This is the only clear photo that I have of the grotto and, of course, it’s photobombed by Madam Poopy Pants. It’s quite obvious which one she is.)

The taxi driver is waiting for us in Manger Square. He asks if we liked the tour.

“Joseph was super.” I take a deep breath. “Can we see the wall?”

“Oh yes. I can take you there.”

A few minutes later we stand in front of the massive barrier. The only tourists. The street is silent, inviting solemn contemplation.


29 thoughts on “The Grotto And The Wall

  1. She must have missed this verse: Mathew 19:14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

  2. My favorite is from the apochryphal Book of Brian where James says “Madam poopypants can go straight to you-know-where”

  3. I visited Bethlehem a while ago during Christmas and we had this huge lady also barge to the silver star, made everyone stand back and then knelt down to kiss it….she then proceeded to get stuck down there and it took 2 other people to pull her out. The rest of us were all giggling and trying not to laugh out loud!!

  4. The lady just went for the photos not for the experience and the spiritual connections. πŸ˜€ great story as always J.I see that I have a lot to catch up here. πŸ˜€

  5. You trip takes me back to the one I did in 1967 ( after the six days war)from Jeruasalem to the Tiberian Sea and it brings up those special memories.
    I often observe people, wherever I am, that they are not involved in the atmoshpere they are in, because they have to take pictures to look at when they are at home, pictures, I am afraid, without any emotions. Thank you Julie, for this wonderful story.:) Very best regards and a pleasant Sunday. Martina

    • Wow, that must have been quite a trip. I’ve noticed that, since the arrival of digital photography and having cameras in your phone, many people have stopped experiencing the present. I have also been guilty of that, since I got my wonderful little camera a few years ago. I’ve recently begun to make an effort to just observe, rather than view every scene as a potential photo. Thank you, Martina, for your visit on this Sunday morning. Enjoy the day. πŸ™‚

  6. Wow – interesting how that silver star is the scene of so many pushy, selfish people! I thought we were uniquely surrounded by pushing, shoving, scene-hogging people (a whole group, snapping dozens of photos as they took turns crawling into that small space). Odd, too, that this small spot should be so crowded when manger square was empty, there were no lines into the church, and we had come through the security barrier with no other visitors late one afternoon. For us, the most fascinating part of visiting Bethlehem last week was the barrier itself, as well as the interaction with our Palestinian guide. It was a good look at the other side.

    • Yes, it is beyond ironic. Almost comical, really. I also found the interaction with Palestinians (our guide and the staff at a back street gift shop) to be a memory that I will cherish. Thank you for adding your thoughts. I really enjoyed your post about Israel.

  7. “Madam Poopy Pants”!!! I laughed out loud when I read it and looked at the face! Reminds me of a certain teacher we had years ago!!! And shame on poopy pants AND our former teacher for they have no consideration others nor any manners!

  8. Doesn’t she just stand out – a face that would curdle milk πŸ™‚ You are a brave traveler Julie – fascinating though it is, I would need some serious persuasion to venture there..

  9. I’m always surprised about your skill on recording mentally all these sensations and details. You give me a clear idea of the impropriety of the lady.

Comments are closed.