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In Jerusalem’s crush, is there room for peace?

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims dip into the Yardenit Baptismal Site along the Jordan River every year.

BARBARA NOE KENNEDY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By BARBARA NOE KENNEDY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 1, 2018

I’m in Christendom’s epicenter, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, and I’m waiting to feel the holiness.

The last five stations on Jesus’ final journey surround me -- including the crucifixion hill at Calvary, the anointing stone and his empty tomb, all encased in the giant domed church originally conceived by Saint Helena in the 4th century -- but I’m crushed by people pushing, shoving, taking selfies.

I creep up the crowded, narrow steps to the Chapel of Calvary, although when I get the top, the mob blocks my way. I try to approach the altar, to feel something, but a tour group thwarts me. I finally give up. Maybe peace is too much to ask in this land that has experienced so much turmoil.

Outside, tour guide Mari Cohen explains a bit about church politics. The 1852 Status Quo agreement regulates the times and places of worship for the denominations that share the church, which don’t get along and are known for verbal and even physical altercations.(On a 2010 visit, I saw a Greek Orthodox priest shove a Roman Catholic woman because the shift had changed.)

I’ve had enough of this discordant venue. I head to the Sea of Galilee, hoping to find peace there.

This vast, heart-shaped expanse in northern Israel is actually an inland lake, fed mostly by the Jordan River. I hear there’s a tradition of eating the St. Peter’s Fish, based on a New Testament story. Jesus told Peter that he would find a silver coin in the mouth of the first fish he caught, to pay the temple tax.

Local chefs have taken note and, in what must be one of the best marketing campaigns around, advertise St. Peter’s Fish -- aka tilapia -- on menus throughout the region. So successful, in fact, that local tilapia populations were devastated in the 2000s. The government intervened, replenishing the stock and limiting the fishing season.

I order St. Peter’s Fish at Avi’s Restaurant in the ancient seaside town of Tiberias. It’s served whole, grilled and lightly seasoned with herbs. The fish is flaky and fresh, though nothing extraordinary -- and, unlike Peter’s, it certainly didn’t have a shekel in its mouth.

Onward in my search, I stop by the Yardenit Baptismal Site, located on a bucolic bend of the Jordan River. Except, I learn, this isn’t the traditional site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

That spot, just north of the Dead Sea about 70 miles south, is hotly debated as being either at al-Maghtas in Jordan (a UNESCO World Heritage site) or Qasr al-Yehud, just a few yards away across the river. Both became embroiled in theArab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 and to this day remain behind the lines of a still-sensitive border area.

Built as an alternative baptismal site in 1981, Yardenit is an experience in itself. Flocks of pilgrims clad in white robes congregate at spots along the river’s edge before being dunked in the placid, green waters.

“It’s free to everyone,” Shahar Alon, who lives in the nearby kibbutz that oversees Yardenit, tells me. “And it’s open to all spirituality. No questions asked. We’ve been proud of that method for 38 years.”

I love that welcoming outlook, though peace still eludes me in the grasp of commercialism. The expansive gift shop provides the only exit route from the baptismal site, and there lurking salespeople accost me, insisting their olive oil is Israel’s best, or that I’ll never find a better deal on the Dead-Sea-salt lotion. Okay, I admit, I break down and purchase a jar of delectable date honey -- my John-the-Baptist souvenir.

As the evening darkness unfolds, I wearily head to the northern Galilee region and the hilltop town of Safed, one of Judaism’s four holy cities. For 2,000 years, Safed has served as an important center of the Kabbalah, the mystical religious text, and four ancient synagogues survive among its artists studios and galleries.

My lodging for the night is the Ruth Rimonim Safed hotel, a sprawling collection of ancient stone buildings that originally served caravans headed to Damascus’s central market. But I’m focusing more on the fact that its restaurant and bar is closed. So much for a relaxing glass of wine, I think as I retreat to my room.

It’s a cavernous space with throw rugs and antique wood furniture, a little on the chilly side. A staircase leads to a small sitting area, where an Ottoman-style window, draped with tangerine curtains, beckons me.

Far below, I spy lights edging what I perceive to be the dark Sea of Galilee, the stars twinkling in an inky black sky above. They say Safed is the Holy Land’s closest town to the heavens, and I believe it. I can almost reach out and touch them. Then the thought strikes me. What is peace, anyway? A sense of calm, of taking a moment to connect with the universe, right?

What if in my impatience I had missed it at my previous stops? Certainly it exists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the early dawn stillness when a member of the same Muslim family that has held the keys for centuries swings open the church doors. I should have visited earlier. And at the Sea of Galilee, where the clear waters ceaselessly lap upon the ancient shore little changed since Jesus walked there. I should have walked along the shore, away from the town bustle. And even at Yardenit, in the joy of the baptismal candidates as the cool Jordan waters wash over them. I should have stayed and watched, from a distance.

I take a deep breath and feel the quietude that has enchanted people through the centuries. I promise myself, I’m not going to miss it here. At long last, on this sacred tiptop hill, I have stumbled upon peace.

Two tilapia -- aka St. Peter's Fish -- await their diners at Avi's Restaurant.
BARBARA NOE KENNEDY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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