A Letter from the Middle East

There might be blood

“You’re going to stick out like sore thumbs”

It was the last night of Birthright. I turned to our tour guide—a late-thirties balding dude with specs, open-toed shoes, and a poorly disguised libertarian streak—to ask about a Hotel in Jerusalem. The rest were headed home, but four of us decided to stay longer.

I squinted at him and bit hard into a piece of dried mango.

“It could be fine, but there’s bad blood by the Dome. Things can happen. Riots break out, people get stabbed.”

We didn’t see any stabbings, nor any riots. But there was blood.

Despite everyone’s advice, we decided to stay in the Muslim quarter.

As far as the city goes, Jerusalem is like an egg:

Inside is the old city, that’s the yolk.

Old Jerusalem is a fortress split four ways. Each of them are equally scorching.

  1. Jewish Quarter (largest)

  2. Muslim Quarter

  3. Christian Quarter

  4. Armenian Quarter (smallest)

Outside the old limestone walls is New Jerusalem, a modern city with hotels, a university, and a bazaar offering the freshest fruit you can dream of. New Jerusalem is the egg-white.

Surrounding them both is a sort of ‘shell.’ On the western half is a mountainous forest. The other side is where things get dicey. East Jerusalem, aka the West Bank aka Palestine.

For the first two weeks, I had been on an all-expenses paid trip organized for any Jew under 32. The idea is to:

  1. Show you that being Jewish is a culture/ethnicity, not a religion

  2. Make you feel like an accepted, valued, worthwhile Jew

And I’ll tell you what—it works

When we left our group, the dynamic changed. It stopped being a high-energy fun-filled elementary-school field-trip and became real life. Just four guys in Jerusalem. We met Orthodox Jews from Canada. Educators from Northern Israel. We ate at Palestinean restaurants. One of us even got shaken down (Oh Michael…)

I didn’t feel like a blessed Jew anymore. I felt like a person—no different from the Arabs, the Christians, and the Armenians.

Then, Israel closed down its borders. That meant my four friends and I were one of a handful of non-Israelis in the country. That’s when it got real.

"Stick out like sore thumbs,” took on a whole new meaning when, rolling our bags down Jerusalem's cleverly designed ramps, a toothless old man started clapping. He opened his mouth and began to cheer.

“Tourists! Tourists!”

We laughed, dropped our bags off at the wonderful Hashimi Hotel and went exploring the Old City. My friend G and I wandered into an Armenian Jewelry store, and here’s what happened.


Stupidly, I give a violent jab at the air. It’s hot and I’m in flip-flops so the floor is slick. The store owner laughs nervously, and I can see sweat drip from his bald head as he takes the sword from me and sighs. He’s relieved to have it back but, as he's sliding the display pane to replace the sword, the glass catches a snag. Out of nowhere, eight feet of glass falls straight onto us.

G, instinctively, reaches up to catch it. The glass splits over the owner’s head and in two huge pieces. G doubles back, howling. A 3ftx3ft shard of glass is laying flat across the owner’s back. He’s narrowly missed being badly gouged, maybe even killed. I jump forward and, careful not to make matters worse, help him place it on the counter. 

I look myself up and down. I’m fine, but there’s blood on the already red speckled ground. G is gushing blood. He’s hunched over, cupping his hand between his legs.

A lot happens in the next thirty minutes. G is sweating, light-headed, and I can tell he’s in shock. I do my best to keep cool. I wrap his wound (poorly) with a rope of tissues and packing tape. 

Even on a normal day, the streets of Old Jerusalem are tight and covered over and smell strongly of spices. It’s ninety-five degrees and G is wobbling. The Old City is too claustrophobic for this. I throw G's arm around my shoulder and talk to him with my normal sorts of nonsense, distract him.

We make it to the Hashimi Hotel. The man behind the counter, Abib, has no first aid kit. Instead, Abib calls his neighbor, another Arab, and the four of us are back in the streets. I’m uneasy about this, but Abib insists.

They guide us through a string of alleys and backrooms, an abandoned yard, a shoe store, and finally up two sets of stairs.

It smells of iodyne. We’re in a brightly lit, blue walled hallway. Two old women are sitting on a bench, gawking at us. Abib walks right passed them and yanks open the white double doors.

Inside is a man, at least eighty years old, white-haired, dressed in white scrubs, with black pants and who speaks only Arabic. A doctor.

For every stabbing there are a hundred acts of selfless kindness. We hear about the riots. We hear about the rockets. But what about the doctor? What about Abib who who covered the medical bill?

Stories are deceiving

Rocky fights the Russian. America battles Nazi Germany. The Miracle on Ice, Harry Potter, Christ versus Satan. Light and dark, good and evil, east and west, them and us: stories are binary.

And they are wrong.

The world is not composed of two opposing forces. Every good person does bad things, and every bad person has seeds of good. Reality is the entire spectrum between light and dark. Yet it’s dualities—War and Peace, infection vs Immunity, Crisis and Bubble— which capture headlines. 

A Muslim, a Jew, a Bahai, a Buddhist, a Daoist, and an Atheist walk into the bar.

Any two could get into a fight from time to time. If they do, what you’ll hear is glass breaking, not the Muslim paying the doctor to save the Jew.

So if I’ve learned anything from this trip its this:

And people are good.

🙋🏼‍♂️ Appreciate the read!

Did you enjoy this email? If so, please share my Substack with a reader who might enjoy. Loads more about this trip in the pipeline…

Take care and shalom, friends


Loading more posts…