WELCOME TO BETHLEHEM
The van pulls up next to another car and we are told to get out. This will be our guide for the next couple of hours.
He asks if I want to sit in the passengers seat and I don’t say no. Mom slips into the backseat. She’s hopped up on Jesus but I don’t feel a thing.
I watch dirt spurt out from the van’s tires as our Israeli guide drives back towards the boarder. We go the other way.
“Welcome to Bethlehem.”
We’ve been touring Israel, my mom and I, for almost two weeks now and until this point everything’s been agreeable. The crusader fortress in Akko, the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, the visit to Kibbutz El Rom, the winery in the Golan Heights (which I skipped, more of a beer person). Even St. Peters Church had weakened me.
But now there’s a crack in the shared, mother-child conscience of our trip, a divergence of ideology and spirituality. I have what my mom has diagnosed as “Jesus Overload.” I can’t take it anymore. It’s miraculous I’ve made it this far without attempting to dismantle the laws of Christianity with my unwavering doubt and ruthless cynicism. In the church that marks the first station of the cross, I sing Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” during a service. Other moments I revisit my high school antics, bluntly muttering, “There is no God,” and walk off before catching my mom’s disturbed glare.
Sitting on a bench across the street, staring up at the glinting dome, I think how churches are best when absent of people. No thoughts, no prayers. Only glass imbued by light, rays shifting on the pews like bodies under water, floorboards moaning from silent movements, untraceable, untouchable.
“Here,” Roger waves us over.
It’s a thirty minute wait to get into the cave where Baby J was born, but we divert the line by entering through the roped off exit. A head nod, a handshake with the security guard, and we’re in. The cave is overcrowded by a group of chanting tourists and their flashing Nikon cameras. The yellow tint of fluorescent lighting gives the space a sacred, artificial glow, illuminating the spot. Mom shoves through the mass of believers and huddles herself in the nook. I snap one semi-blurred photo of her nativity scene.
“Got it, let’s go.”
My mom lingers in the church, head bowed, hands clasped behind her back, while I wait for her outside. Roger emerges from the church and joins me.
“This isn’t really your ‘thing’, is it?” he observes.
“Not at all.”
“Are you Jewish?”
“Jew-ish,” I emphasize.
-Ish means mixed and mixed means nothing.
“Hey, question.” A hesitation. “Would you mind slowing down the car when we drive past street art so I can take pictures?”
Awaiting an answer of confusion and reluctance, instead I hear another question.
“Do you know Banksy?” Roger asks.
Do I know Banksy?
Banksy’s been on my mind since my 15th birthday, wandering the cobblestoned streets of SoHo with my dad and coming across an “artist” selling t-shirts, the one most appealing to me a person dressed in black throwing a bouquet of colorful flowers. They’ve been on my mind since Exit Through the Gift Shop and all the shit they pulled in L.A. the week of that year’s Emmy’s. But Banksy has truly been on my mind since they snuck they’re way into Gaza and went to work, using the rubbled landscape as a canvas for they’re sociopolitical art.
My mom returns to us ethereal and enlightened and seeing her this way almost makes me feel bad about the direction this day is about to head.
“I can take you to see some Banksy.”
“Oh, I know Bank-ski!” my mom interjects.
“It’s Banksy, mom.”
“That’s what I said!”
We load back into the car with a new purpose. Street art is my spirituality and, unlike Jesus, it can actually be seen.
Roger tells us how desolate Bethlehem has become over the years. Because of the depiction of Palestine and demonization of her people, the droves of tourists have dwindled to an unsteady trickle. Occupation, it seems, means lifelessness. But lives are lived here, nonetheless.
We jump the curb in front of an outdoor carwash. The couple of men working unclasp their hose handles as Roger approaches them. They chat in Arabic for a few seconds and I see one of the men point to the building behind them. That’s when we’re waved out of the car and follow Roger, stepping over streams of sudsy water. This all feels like a huge misunderstanding and I almost voice my concern until we turn a corner. And there, 20 feet tall, stands the Flower Thrower, legs spread, face covered, ready to chuck flowers somewhere into the distance.
How can it be? How can it be that such a famous image is painted onto the side of a carwash, where its presence is an afterthought to those who work there? It’s all so regular, but I guess that’s how it’s meant to be.
I hand my camera off to my mom and she snaps a crooked picture of me right under the Flower Thrower’s crotch.
Next on the unofficial Banksy tour is an oversized dove delivering an olive branch while wearing a bulletproof vest, and after that a young girl stopping-and-frisking an IDF soldier.
I’ve been wearing awe on the inside and out. Roger notices and asks, “Do you want to see the separation wall?” and I say yes.
We coast slowly on a narrow street along the wall but not slow enough.
“I’m sorry, but could you just slow down a bit more? I’m having a hard time getting photos.”
“I’m driving pretty slow.”
Roger would rather not let me out of the car and he tells me so. But he also seems moved by my fascination with all the artwork on the wall and says I can get out, assuring my mom that they’ll keep an eye on me from inside the car.
I follow the art, running my fingertips on the bubbled and scratchy words promising me that “Without Colour You Die” and “Palestina Is For Smart People.” Through the lens of my camera I read, “UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS LIKE WATER AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM..” and as my eyes search for more I see his name in red,
RIP Andrew Pochter.
I chuckle before I cry.
How can it be.
I remember the summer Andrew Pochter died and, for a time, so did the rest of the world. An all-American boy from Chevy Chase, Maryland, Andrew was handsome, bright, and kind in a way that seemed otherworldly. He had gone to Alexandria, Egypt that summer to teach young children English and was drawn to the protests erupting around him. It was at one of these protests that he was stabbed and killed and when his spirit of unabated altruism and curiosity emerged, a letter, published in The Washington Post, came with it:
Hello how are you man? I can’t believe it has been a year since camp. I am sure you are wiser, taller and smarter since I saw you last. Please accept my apologies that I will not be there for the graduation ceremony. Right now I am in Alexandria, Egypt teaching English to young students who are around your age. They all speak Arabic so learning English as a second language is quite difficult. But they are all really intelligent, just like you! You would really like the Arabic language, you should check it out!
Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of a enormous political revolution. I lose electricity and water all of the time but that’s okay because I have many Egyptian friends to help take care of me. When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them. Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well. What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others. I want to surround myself with good people!
I did not come up with this personal philosophy on my own. Without thoughtful and caring people like you, I would probably be a mean and grumpy person. Your kind heart and genuine character serve as a model for me. I hope that you will never stop your curiosity for the beautiful things in life. Go on hikes in forests, canyons and mountains, go fishing, research wildlife, and get out of city Life if you can. Surround yourself with good friends who care about your future. Fall in love with someone. Get your heart broken. And then move on and fall in love again. Breathe life every day like it is your first. Find something that you love to do and never stop doing that thing unless you find something else you love more.
Don’t blame others for their mistakes. It makes you weak. You are a strong man who does not need to be weighted down by people who only complain and say negative things. Speak with conviction and believe in yourself because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.
I wish I could be there to say my congratulations but I know that it wouldn’t change much. You have earned it. Hopefully one day you will hang up this diploma next your high school and college diplomas as well.
Try not to forget me. If you ever need anything, just email:
Apparently my mom and Roger have been calling for me but I can’t hear a thing. Reading Andrew Pochter’s name mutes Bethlehem. The two of them finally catch up to me and, sobbing, I explain how this young man went to my college, how the packed memorial service held in the school’s dining hall during what would’ve been the fall semester of his junior year has since left him stranded in my mind.
“One of his friends must’ve done this,” I say of the graffiti.
I ask my mom if she can take a photo and she doesn’t say no.
I collapse crosslegged in front of his name. Beside him is “Free Palestine,” above “NO WAR.”
ANNETTE COVRIGARU is a queer American-Israeli writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. They were a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices nonfiction fellow and writer-in-residence in 2014 and 2017, respectively. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in TQ Review, Emerge, Entropy and Crab Fat Magazine, and is collected at www.annettecovrigaru.com. Annette is currently completing a master’s degree in Holocaust Studies through the University of Haifa.