Not a bad guy to be found

A strange thing happened on our final full day in Israel. We laid eyes on literally thousands of Muslims — seemingly all at once — and didn’t see a terrorist in the bunch.

It was shortly after noon on Friday. My wife and I were atop the Mount of Olives, where we could hear the Muslim prayers coming from inside the walls of the Old City. We trekked down from the hilltop to Lion’s Gate, at the eastern wall.

Then came the crowd, and I mean it was huge. The prayers had ended and the folks who had congregated inside the Old City began filing out through Lion’s Gate. They streamed out, and kept streaming out for what seemed like an eternity.

My wife and I waited patiently for the crowd to begin to thin out. We waited some more. And some more. We both were struck by a peculiar notion, which was that no one paid us any attention. Each member of the throng of thousands seemed intent on getting to wherever they were headed, and paid zero attention to a pair of foreigners.

I looked for a suspicious character in the crowd. I’ll be darned if I could find one. Little boys and girls giggled as they unwrapped their frozen fruit treats. Women dressed in their traditional Muslim attire trudged along among the masses of men who comprised the vast majority of the massive crowd.

I asked an Israeli police officer nearby, “How long will this take?” About 10 minutes, maybe more, he said. We waited another 10 minutes or so. My wife joked that perhaps we were witnessing a parade and that everyone was just walking in a long circle.

Then the young officer stood up and waved us over. “Do you want to go now?” he asked. “Yes,” we both answered.

So, we got right behind the heavily armed officer as he forced his way through the crowd into the Old City. We were riding in his “wake” as he nudged steadily through the crowd, walking in the opposite direction of where the outgoing throng was moving.

It helps to know people, right?

But in this post-9/11 world in which some folks actually believe all Muslims are intent on killing us “infidels,” a refreshing reminder of the fallacy of those beliefs arose from the masses of folks who had just said their prayers on a blazing hot day in the Holy Land.

These folks have ample reason

When we landed in Israel on May 10, we were greeted with a big surprise: no customs forms and a smooth walk through immigration, where agents glanced at our passports, stamped them and sent us on our way.

It won’t be nearly that smooth when we leave on Saturday.

David Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv is a shiny, modern terminal. It’s also crawling with security guards. Most of our Rotary Group Study Exchange team flew home on June 7. One of our team members stayed behind for a week of vacation. My wife arrived that day for a week of R&R with me.

Our team members who have gone through the security check have been dragged through the airport sausage grinder. On Saturday, it’s our turn.

One of our team members, Aida Almaraz, sent back a note advising us to be at the DB-G airport four hours-plus early, instead of the customary three hours. I watched the security officers go through her baggage item by item when she left. She confirmed that it doesn’t get any easier once you obtain your boarding pass. Aida then said that the Continental flight had begun boarding by the time she and her companions — Katt Krause and Shirley Davis — had arrived at the gate. And they had been there for three hours already!

I understand why the Israelis are so adamant about airport security. They’ve been the target of many terrorist hijackings and other acts of violence over many years. They have become the masters of ensuring that bad guys don’t climb aboard a commercial jetliner.

But, as an Israeli friend of mine muttered through clenched teeth as we watched our GSE team run through the ringer, “The terrorists have given jobs to many people.”

That’s fine with me … just as long we get home safely.

Hey, you must be an American!

Whenever I’m abroad for any length of time, I start looking for signs that connect me in some small way with home.

Go to a public eating establishment full of people and look around. You can spot an American in an instant by the way he or she uses his or her silverware. I’ve found that to be true in Israel.

Europeans and those in the Middle East are a bit more efficient in the way they consume a meal. They place the fork in the left hand, knife in the right, push their food onto their fork with their knife and then raise the fork to their mouth. No changing of hands is required.

Americans, on the other hand, don’t use knives to push food onto our forks. We keep the fork in our right or left hand — depending on our dexterity — and use the knife only for cutting our meat, or slicing our bread. We’ll use the fork to cut our veggies. Those of us who are right-handed usually switch hands with the fork while using the knife in our right hand to cut our food.

I haven’t yet had the gumption to greet an American when I see one eating a meal. That would be rude, of course. Since my wife and I will be in Israel only a few more days, I am not likely to embarrass myself by disturbing one of my countrymen when he or she doesn’t expect it.

Still, it’ll be good to be home — among folks who don’t distract me with their table manners.

If only they could eat them

Miniature boots are big in Israel. How do I know that?

Early in our Group Study Exchange visit, we attended a speech contest sponsored by a group of Rotary Clubs in the Be’er Sheva area. Five high school students gave five-minute speeches on any topic of their choosing. The winner of that regional competition was Nir Lifsitz, an engaging teenager who told me later that he intends to visit Texas.

Nir was one of several contestants this weekend at the Rotary District 2490 Conference in Jerusalem. About 30 minutes before the start of the finals, Nir and I got reacquainted. He and a buddy — who was there to cheer Nir on — asked me for some Amarillo Chamber of Commerce lapel pins, which have the name “Amarillo” spelled out with the double Ls in the shape of boots. I gave him the pins.

Five minutes later, at 20 or 30 students — boys and girls — descended on me with outstretched hands. They, too, wanted pins. I handed them out like, well, candy. It was as if the kids had materialized out of thin air.

The seemed seemed truly delighted to get the pins.

Score one for the Chamber of Commerce. Its signature emblem has spread to the Middle East.

How did Nir fare at the conference speech contest finals? He finished fourth, but said afterward that only a few points separated him from the first-place finisher.

But I was pulling for Nir, along with the rest of his cheering section — many of whom I hope are now wearing their Amarillo “boot pins” proudly.

And some things just happen

There are some things in life one never — not even once — expects to do.

Walking along the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, one of Christendom’s most revered sites, is one of those things.

Then came a spontaneous event that, well, made it special beyond all comprehension.

Our group met a gentleman, Brother Leo, who told us he hails from Santa Barbara, Calif. He has lived in Israel for 20 years. He is a monk who prays daily on the hill overlooking the holy city of Jerusalem. Below were Christian, Muslim and Jewish cemeteries just under the walls of the Old City. We could see churches and mosques and synagogues all along the horizon. The churches were Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. We were beginning our walk where Jesus is believed to have walked during his brief time on Earth. Our walk would take us eventually to where he was crucified, buried and where he arose.

Three members of our Rotary Group Study Exchange team and I spoke briefly with Brother Leo. As we said our goodbye, he asked, “Would you like me to say a blessing?” We held hands and he prayed for us.

It is difficult, at the end of an incredibly moving day touring the 14 stages of the cross inside the Old City, to comprehend what happened on the Mount of Olives with that gentle man in the cloth robe.

I simply felt blessed in every possible way to have prayed with him — at that location and among these holiest of shrines.

I’m still trying to catch my breath.

These friends seem, well, different

Seeing new friends sometimes is like seeing old friends.

Our Group Study Exchange team arrived in Jerusalem this afternoon. We checked in at our hotel, some pretty posh digs called the Regency. We’re tired, but thrilled to be near the end of our adventure. And in some strange way, we seem to have found our second wind as the Rotary District Conference has gotten under way.

The reception this evening was a coming together of new friends we have made along the way, but seeing them again was like a gathering of old friends.

These were our “house parents.” They were the folks assigned by the Rotary District in Israel to play host to this band of travelers from Texas, U.S.A., and from The Netherlands — with whom we’ve been traveling for the past four weeks.

From Tel Aviv, Eilat, Nazareth, Nahariya, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Zichron Ya’Akov and Tivon they all came to this conference. Old friends who took care of us along the way, opened up their homes — and their hearts — to us all. They told us to make ourselves “at home.” They said their homes were our homes, that their fridge always would be open to us. “You need laundry done? I’ll do it,” they said. “You want to call home? Go ahead, use our phone,” they implored us.

It’ll be strange later this weekend when it all concludes. We parted company earlier knowing we’d see them in Jerusalem. That wasn’t so bad and I took comfort knowing we would gather once again in this holiest of cities.

But when the exchange ends for keeps on Sunday, someone will have to keep the Kleenex handy.

I just hate saying goodbye to friends.

Down the stretch we come …

I’ve officially gotten my second wind. Three days to go until the end of our Rotary Group Study Exchange journey through Israel and I am re-energized.

We leave Thursday morning for Jerusalem. The Rotary district we’ve been visiting, 2490, is having its District conference in Israel’s capital city. Our team will make its final presentation to a fairly large assembly of Rotary members. Then the official mission is complete. Yes, we’ll stay on until the end of the conference and we’ll still acting as ambassadors for West Texas, for our Rotary District 5730 and for the United States. But then the exchange ends on Sunday.

We’ll be left, then, with our memories of what only can be described as a monumental personal experience for all of us.

But for now, we have one more exciting chapter awaiting us. Taking a gander at the Spiritual Capital of the Holy Land, the place where our faith has its roots.

Feast, not famine

Allow me to sum up one critical aspect of our trip through Israel with a single four-letter word.

Food.

We are eating our way across the Holy Land. Katt Krause, one of our Rotary Group Study Exchange team members, has the perfect description of what she feels when she awakens every morning. She calls it a “food hangover.”

Amen, Sister Katt.

Do not misunderstand me. We are enjoying ourselves immensely on this journey. The hospitality has been astonishing. Our Israeli hosts at every stop on the way have gone out of their way to show us their country, its traditions and its very special places.

The dinner table appears to cover two elements here: It’s a special place that honors a longstanding Israeli tradition.

Our lunch today in Ramla was a feast fit for royalty.

First came the appetizers: vegetables, salads, bread and a spread called hummus, which everyone here praises as a delicacy sent from heaven.

Then came the next course: it included a pastry filled with meat, which Shirley Davis, another GSE team member, compared to a Philly sandwich; it also included grilled chicken kabobs and some more salads.

The next course included even more salads and a rice dish with seasoned roast beef.

It kept coming and coming and coming.

Dessert? How about cream-filled pastry, such as chocolate eclairs and some other goodies.

And no meal is complete without coffee. It’s either instant coffee or what the Israelis refer to simply as “black coffee,” which in fact is a Turkish blend that makes your hair stand straight up.

Israelis are quite proud of the food they produce here. We have heard about that pride virtually every step of the way. The problem now, though, is that it is getting just a little more difficult to step quite as lively as we were when this adventure began.

I’ll be back at the gym first thing when I get home.

Honk, if you feel like it

I’ve been telling some acquaintances in Israel that one potentially positive effect of the concealed handgun carry law in Texas is that it might have made Texans a little more courteous behind the wheel of a car.

OK, that’s open to debate. But you have to admit that you think twice about honking your horn at someone believing he or she could be packing a pistol, right? I know I have given it some thought.

But in Israel, where automatic weapons often are seen slung over the shoulders of active-duty soldiers, horn-honking is a way of life. If you don’t move immediately after the light turns green, the driver behind you pounds on his horn. If you slow down on the street because you might be lost trying to navigate through a street-grid maze where a right-angle turn cannot be found, the same thing happens. Sometimes, it seems, people honk their horns just for the heck of it.

Our Group Study Exchange team was warned about Israeli drivers before we got here. They’re aggressive, rude and impatient — and this assessment came from an Israeli professor at Texas Tech University.

I’ve been considering whether to rent a car while I’m in Israel on vacation for a week when our GSE assignment concludes. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in the film, “In the Line of Fire”: I might learn to love public transportation.

The end is coming — quickly

I knew it would happen, but I’m still not sure I’ll be ready for the conclusion that is now just around the corner.

Our Rotary Group Study Exchange trip began on May 10. We were midway through our first week in Israel and one of our team members, Fernando Valle, said, “I’ve been here less than a week, but already it feels like a month.” I recall saying something like, “Amen to that, brother.” But remember this, I cautioned: It’s going to fly by and when we get near the end, we won’t know what had happened to the time we have just spent.

With eight days to go, the reverse of what we felt at the beginning is setting in.

At least for me, it is.

I’m going to take an extra week of vacation when my wife arrives at the end of our GSE assignment. I will enjoy tremendously showing her a taste of what we will have seen.

But most of our team is going home on June 7. Saying “so long” to them will be difficult.

This journey to date has been one for the books. It looks for all the world, though, like the final chapter is going to be a doozy.

Commentary on politics, current events and life experience

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