My Encounter with Gates in the Holy Land

Debbie Allen is a current M.Div. student. She attended the recent pilgrimage to the Israel and Palestine region organized by CRCDS, entitled "The Holy Land and Its People." Below is the short version of an essay Debbie wrote following the trip that is adapted for public reading.

What happens when we walk through a gate? Who are we before we enter the gate and who do we become on the other side? How does the gate change us? In June, I had an opportunity to pass through many gates on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by CRCDS professors Melanie Duguid May and Mark Brummitt. Gates became a lens through which I could begin to understand what I was seeing and experiencing.

PALESTINE-BETHLEHEM-NIGHTIt was at Tel Megiddo that I first encountered the significance of gates. As we climbed to the top of this wind-blown hill where more than 20 cities were constructed over the course of 5,000 years, I was taken by the magnificence of its location on what was once known as the Via Maris, the international highway leading from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The immensity of the deep blue sky and the expansive view out over the Jezreel Valley were exhilarating. Our first stop was at the city gates. Tina, our guide, spoke about the importance of the gates not only for defensive purposes, but also as a social space, a market place, a place of judgment and execution, as well as a place of shrines. She mentioned biblical stories in which city gates were prominent, among them Proverbs 1:21 in which Wisdom cries out at the busiest corner, the entrance of the city gates; Ruth 4:1 in which Boaz goes to the gate to redeem the estate of Elimelech so that he can receive Ruth to be his wife; and II Samuel 18:24, 33 in which David sits between the two gates, waiting for tidings of his son, Absalom, and then goes up to the chamber over the gate to weep when he learns of Absalom’s death. These stories added to the richness of gate imagery, but it was Tina’s description of the gate as an ambivalent and a liminal space that captivated me. The gate was ambivalent, she said, because it was, at the same time, an entrance that provided access and the place of greatest weakness and vulnerability to invasion. It was liminal because it was a space between the inner and the outer worlds, a place of transition for travelers in which they briefly belonged to neither world and were therefore open and unprotected. The actual stone remains of the Megiddo gates no longer conveyed might or power, but in my imagination, I recreated their former stature and envisioned lively scenes of human activity moving in and out through this passageway.

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Sycamore Nuts: An Unholy Experience in the Holy Land

This is post number one from our CRCDS delegation of witness and solidarity in Israel/Palestine.  You will later see entries more profound, religious, inspiring, and touching than this one.  Today I am telling you a "Stupid American" story involving appetite, ignorance, and the tourist trade in the "world's oldest city," Jericho, in the West Bank, an occupied Palestinian territory.

After several days of encountering distressing realities like the Palestine walled refugee camp of Aida near Bethlehem, historic locales like the Old City of Jerusalem, and such holy sites as the Mount of Olives and the Tomb of Mary, we ventured today to the mythically endowed historical site Masada, to the Qumran caves, and then had the crazy experience of putting our bodies, in various states of undress and mineral mud application, into the thick waters of the Dead Sea. Sweaty and tired, we landed at last at a souvenir shop in Jericho. We wanted booty.

At this large market, among the jewelry and lotions and sundry treats was a display of foods, including Medjul dates and some other nut-like things.  I tasted a few; they were good, with a nice coating of salt to replace the 4 pound of salt I had lost through sweat. Stephanie Sauvé, Dean of Academic Life, was in fact purchasing a packet of the nuts at the checkout line when she explained that they were called "sycamore" nuts.  Who knew!  Something exotic from the Holy Land.  I bought my own $6 packet and as we loaded back into the bus, I threw a bunch of them into my mouth and passed the container to the others on the bus.  Yum.

Briliant Jean Zaru, our Quaker Palestianian activist guest and longtime friend of Dr. Melanie May, was sitting in the row in front of me.  When she tasted the nuts, she said to me, "These are not sycamore nuts.  We don't know of any such thing as sycamore nuts."  Then what the heck were they, I wondered?

Jean explained.  "In the store I tasted one of these, and they are what we call 'kabuki, which are peanuts coated in dough.  All the nut stores in Palestine have these.  They are certainly not sycamore nuts."  She explained that she told the store worker that she was onto their trick. "Oh, you can't fool a Palestinian!" the man confided.

Well, he clearly fooled me, American Doofus.  I was glad to know the truth and nevertheless kept chowing down on these gustatory imposters.  All was well until Debbie, a few rows back, interjected that it mattered to her that these were fake sycamore nuts; her peanut allergy jumped out as soon as she put one to her lips!  She suspected that our sycamore nuts were not as billed.

OK, now I was pissed.  We had Jean to decode the tourist trade scams for us. What about others, those with peanut allergies who might actually sicken or die from this fraud?  Thank God that Debbie caught it in time.  My American activist mind wanted to go back to the shop, chew the owners out, and report them to whoever dealt with this kind of ruse.

Of course, instead of that I popped another sycamore nut into my mouth and had to let it go.  Lesson learned.

This is the odd mix of the Holy Land.  One minute you are staring up at a cave in the high buttes where a shepherd threw a stone and found ancient scrolls.  Then you float in the Dead Sea, whose historic waters are receding as its minerals are harvested for youth-enhancing cosmetics.  Then you buy killer nuts.

Pretty soon I am going to Google sycamore nuts.  Maybe they actually exist.

— Barbara Zelter (M.A., 2011)