My first encounter with the diverse and dense Israeli culture was far from ordinary. It was Pesach, or Passover, for the Jewish religion and Orthodox Christian Easter, meaning thousands of people flooded Jerusalem to witness the "Holy Fire." The amount of activity in Jerusalem was overwhelming for a first-timer like me, but more fascinating than any city I have visited.
Jerusalem, especially the Old City territory, has been fought over for years by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Not only is it fought over for political and territorial reasons, but the area is the point of religious conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians because it is home to the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I could feel this tension pulsing through the veins of the city. Don't get me wrong- I never once felt unsafe or in danger. This tension was different. The city is made up of three distinct religions that all exist together but rarely interact. And each religion has its own sects, which hardly interact with each other either. Orthodox Jewish men walk with their heads down to avoid interactions with women, while many Muslim women wear headdresses as a sign of modesty but ultimately setting them selves apart from others. All of these distinct traditions and values have created huge barriers between religious groups and have therefore divided the city into religious communities that don't interact but live within the same 48 square miles. As an outsider, I visually witnessed this on the streets without even talking to locals.
The most notable sign of this diversity and divide was at the holy sites- the Western Wall, Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These three religious treasures are all within walking distance from each other and attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. While walking around the Dome of the Rock, a group of Jewish men were making their daily walk around the Temple Mount, a tradition they carry out every day, and in return, Muslim "boo" and "hiss" at them as a sign of disrespect. Once the Jewish men have finished their walk, everyone returns to silence.
Despite the strong religious differences of groups all living on top of each other in this little city, Jerusalem is a vibrant place, full of amazing people, food, culture, and spirit. I have never learned more about a new culture than I did during this immersive experience.