Imagine standing on the Mount of Olives, looking over at Jerusalem, and then looking into the camera to say, “The land Israelis and Palestinians occupy is, for a third of humanity, literally holy land. And Jerusalem marks its sacred center. To Christians, this is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. To Muslims, this is from where Mohammed ascended to Heaven. And to Jews, it’s where the Temple of Solomon stood. The crossroads for three great religions, the Holy Land has been coveted and fought over for centuries.”
Sometimes this work — what I sometimes playfully think of as tour guiding for couch potatoes — is so exciting that I can’t say my lines without losing my composure.
When filming (or traveling) in the Holy Land, you need to expect the unexpected. In a land of three faiths, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all Sabbaths — triple the religious holidays (and problematic-for-our-work closures) than in other places. On the morning we planned to film important “on camera” bits from the famous viewpoint of the Mount of Olives, we hit a perfect storm of cruise ships and religious pilgrims, causing a jam-up of at least a hundred tour buses on a winding lane designed for little more than donkey carts. Hoping to salvage something — as we had a tight and demanding itinerary for that day — we jumped out of our car (so it wouldn’t get ensnared in the mammoth traffic jam), hiked quickly to the viewpoint, realized it was impossibly crowded to get any good work done, hiked through the ancient cemetery below, and found a quiet little perch upon which to film. We got our “on cameras” done just as a truck with a loudspeaker came by to say, “You are standing on private property and must leave.”
The golden dome on Temple Mount marks a spot considered sacred to a third of humanity. Under that dome is a sacrificial stone with gutters to drain the blood spilled upon it by pagans long before there was a Jewish faith. It’s the stone upon which — according to Muslim, Jewish, and Christian tradition — Abraham prepared to prove his faith by sacrificing his son, Isaac. Pondering the tumult and persistent tragedy caused by the fact that three religions share a single holy rock, our cameraman, Karel, wonders if God doesn’t just have a wicked sense of humor. (And thank you to Baha’is and Hindis, and other faiths for choosing other places to call holy.)
Filming at the Western Wall was easy…as long as we didn’t need to film women worshipping, since our cameraman wouldn’t be allowed in that half of the open-air synagogue. (When we filmed here 13 years ago, we had a female camera operator. Consequently, our Western Wall shots for that episode were of women praying.) We had complete access, along with all the happy uncles making home videos of the festival of bar mitzvahs going on, and the footage will be vivid and joyful. As we explain in our script, “A thousand years before Jesus, King David united the 12 tribes of Israel and captured Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, built The First Temple right here. It was later destroyed, and The Second Temple was built. Then came the catastrophic year for the Jews: A.D. 70, when the Romans destroyed their temple, ushering in the Diaspora. That’s when the Jews became a people without a land and dispersed throughout the world. The western foundation of the ancient wall that surrounded the temple survives. Here — at what’s called the Western Wall — Jews mourn a horrible past and pray for a better future. The square operates as an open-air synagogue. The faithful believe prayers left in cracks between the stones of the Western Wall will be answered.”
Sorting out things in the Holy Land compared to in Europe is like going from checkers to chess. I am so steep on the learning curve, and it was critical for us to have good guides (like Abie Bresler, our Jerusalem guide, shown here) all through our shoot. (Abie was the perfect fixer. For example, when my producer Simon said that the little loaner white yarmulke they give visiting tourists didn’t “pop” on film, Abie found me a classy black one to wear in a snap.) I started our Israel show saying, “I’m wearing my yarmulke and I’m ready to learn.”