A Tale of Two Holy Cities

Yesterday I spent the day in Jerusalem. I visited two families and had two quite opposite experiences. Not because one was fun and the other boring, but because of the dichotomy that I was exposed to. I spent the afternoon in West Jerusalem with an Orthodox Jewish family for Shabbat and then the night at a birthday party of a Palestinian friend in East Jerusalem.

The day served to epitomize the increasingly neutral stance that I’ve grown to have on the conflict while living here the past two months. Before coming to Israel I was similarly neutral, but much less informed. Back then, my view was based almost solely on having both Israeli and Palestinian/Arab friends from United World College-I understood that I was not knowledgeable enough to strongly take a side, and so to not alienate either I stood in the middle. Now, after months of intense experiences and constant first-hand learning, I still find myself in the middle. One day soon I hope to write a post more intellectually examining my opinions on the matter, but for brevity’s sake I will just talk a little bit about the wonderful time I had yesterday.

I went to Jerusalem with one of my closest friends from the program. He is Israeli-American, growing up near NYC but spending every summer in Israel. I always liked doing stuff around the country with him because he’s done it all a hundred times and knows the history and cool facts about everything. After walking around the city a bit we headed over to his distant relatives for shabbat. These relatives are rather conservative politically and so before I entered the house Daniel advised me to remove the Palestinian flag bracelet I wear. He said though, that I should keep on the one of Israel.

These relatives are Orthodox and I learned a lot of different traditions while I was with them. We set the table together, went to temple, pre-tore the toilet paper, and prayed for the bread and wine. Other than the hour we left to go to temple, we sat inside and talked. They told me about their history in Romania and the Netherlands, then the Holocaust, and now in Israel. They discussed politics, and were a little perturbed by my vow of neutrality, but I didn’t push it. Instead, I spent the day listening to their side and enjoying their amazing hospitality. They told me why they did each activity and the father explained the important parts of the weekly Torah reading. The food was definitely a highlight of the night, only being beaten out by the hilarity that ensued when they had to covertly ask me to switch off the coffee pot. On Shabbat only a non-Jew can switch on or off electricity, and Jews can not flat-out ask them to do it, so they had to cleverly ask me by explaining what the Hebrew words meant (on and off) and asking which seemed most appropriate at the time.

After dinner I got into a cab to head to East Jerusalem for the party and switched my bracelets. It had officially started at 5:30, but that was the “girl’s only” time, because some of the birthday girl’s friends are conservative Muslims and have a few things they can not do around boys. When I arrived at 8:30, most of the guys had also arrived and the party was in full swing. There was tons of incredible Arab food and desserts, but unfortunately I was more than full. I split my time between the younger party room- it was the girl’s sweet 16, so the girls were all young, the boys a bit older at 18- and the adult’s room, where the mom and all of her co-workers from the United Nations were. It was great to talk to them about all of the events currently happening surrounding Palestine and to get the second perspective on what I heard at dinner. I had fun both discussing global issues with the adults and dancing with the kids and I eventually acted as the link to the two groups as I convinced everyone to dance together.

At one o'clock in the morning me and two of the adults found our way to the Sherut (like a big taxi or small bus) and headed back to Tel Aviv. Of course, the Sherut was full almost strictly of Arabs-since Jerusalem Jews are more conservative and not active on Shabbat, but once we were in the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv it was a different story, really a city that doesn’t sleep, Jewish or not. When I got into my bed at night I began to think about how lucky I’ve been to see so many different sides to this issue: I’ve seen secular liberal Jews in Tel Aviv and Orthodox ones in West Jerusalem. I’ve experienced conservative Islam during my birthday weekend in Palestine and party-throwing left-wing Arabs last night.

Most importantly, I think that my neutrality and ability to listen rather than throw verbal stones is the catalyst to my learning. When I arrived here I was an empty page, ready to learn as much as I could and form an opinion and open my mouth only once I was knowledgeable enough to believe 100% in my views. I think that I’m almost there, I speak up if anyone is too dehumanizing, I don’t make it a secret that I’m not fully on one side, and I do not lie if directly asked for a view… but I still switch my bracelets.

Do you have a similar experience? Tell me about it below in the comments section.

Sal Lavallo


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About Me

Hi! I’m Sal Lavallo – and I'm on my way to visiting every country in the world!


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