I belong to a family of preachers and teachers—all workaholics–but inside people. My strength is in my willpower and verbal skills, not my physical abilities. Joining the City of David archeological excavation in Jerusalem, Israel, after my junior year of college was completely out of character. Keith, my boyfriend, a recent history graduate and a three season Intramural champion, relished the thought of a hands-on history project.
During the descent into Tel Aviv, I asked him “how do you say ‘where is the bathroom?’”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you say ‘do you speak English?’”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
“I know my Haphtorah.”
“You told me you spoke Hebrew.”
“I do, my Haphtorah”
“How is chanting about Moses going to help us with anything?”
“Don’t worry, everyone speaks English.”
I wondered ‘isn’t it arrogant for Americans to assume everyone speaks English?’ Secretly, I hoped it was true.
Arriving in the heat of Tel Aviv pale and exhausted, the large soldier with a machine gun hanging from his shoulder, glaring at me as I exited the airplane, was a virtual punch in the stomach. On the bus ride from the airport, the passenger in front of me mentioned that this was the line terrorists bombed the previous week. The grandmother in the seat across from me handed me fruit and told me I needed to eat more. The soldiers standing in the aisle kept bumping the muzzle of their guns against my knee.
On the first day of the dig, standing on a covered patio with dozens of students–big students who clearly played outdoor sports–I started to tremble. The walk to arrive at the dig in the 5:30AM heat was enough for me. Then the approach to the work site undid me. It required climbing down an ancient wall of stacked white stones the size of footballs and then up a small promontory of rocks held together with eroding dirt. That first morning, I couldn’t do it. Fear that I didn’t have the strength or the balance or whatever it is that people need to climb ancient walls paralyzed me. While my group went on, I worked alone on the easily accessible top layer breaking up dirt with a pick ax.
Each day on the dig was hard, dust-encased work. But, before the first week was out I was crawling all over the site, the fear of climbing lost. I fell into a routine: up at 5AM, devour the cup of instant oatmeal, and then ride the bus to the city gates. Daily I practiced the only Hebrew word I truly needed, “rega” meaning “wait,” as our group ran towards the bus just as the driver closed the doors. The only other people on the bus were the soldiers I checked for each day before feeling safe enough to doze through the ride. It was the walk from the bus stop, around the Old City walls, and to the dig site that pulled me out of bed each day.
At dawn, the sun turned the grey majestic City walls a warm pink, a breath-taking transformation. As the hue of the stones warmed, so did the temperature. During this silent walk I fell in love with Jerusalem. Too early for the child vendors yelling “CokeCokeCokeCoke,” or the blaring horns from cars choking the ancient streets, I thought about the people whose footsteps I walked in: rabbis, Christ and his apostles, Mohammad. More than the Church of the Sepulcher, the Western Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, this daily metamorphosis from dull to brilliance, from cool to warm, felt holy.
I finished the dig stronger, more confident, and a beautiful shade of bronze. For the first time in my life, I was physically challenged and I dug deep and met the mark. On the last day, after the speeches and goodbyes, Keith gave me discarded broken pottery handles, a pipe and an oil lamp, all thousands of years old. These pieces sit in our living room, more precious than the presents we exchanged on our wedding day. In times of illness, death, terrible jobs, worry over our children, I see them and remember, I can survive hard things.
About the Author: Kim Allen-Niesen is in an ‘inbetween stage.’ She is in between being a lawyer and something else. She is pursuing her three passions, writing, art history, and spiritual direction, and looking forward to seeing where they lead her.