An American student spending the winter holiday in Israel finds himself at the crossroads of faith, history and his sense of self.

Rob Tocalino is a freelance writer living in Reno.

In a snapshot, the bodies could have been dead. Floating above the surface, 10, maybe 12 young faces disconnected from their raised feet, midsections submerged just beneath the water. The hanging cloud cover and monochrome landscape would confirm the ominous tone of the photo.

But the pealing of their laughter, their uncoordinated lunges toward one another, hands parting the waters in front of them, indicated that they were very much alive. Only one of the group floated off by himself, seemingly at peace.

Christmas Eve, 1992
The ride to Bethlehem seemed overly long. In this land where distance is subsumed by history, the students had grown accustomed to the rapid procession of the seats of their faith. The proximity of town to town was overwhelming for the devout and ridiculous to the non-believers. They had seen Nazareth, Galilee and the river Jordan—each name on the map provoking faithful reverence in most of them—and were just now on their way from Jerusalem for a Christmas Eve mass. The sound of Christmas carols drifted throughout the bus from a few students in the back. But Franklin had no taste for the holiday.

For him, seated alone with arms crossed at the

front of the bus, staring at the approaching lights of the city, the ride seemed like a wasted trip. He held his forehead, marked with a bright red scab, against the cold window, the vibrations of the road spreading through his body.

Father Clint eyed Franklin’s lonely, defiant posture with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

Franklin found himself in Israel as a result of a scholarship to study abroad. For his first semester in southern Spain, he’d been trapped outside the social rituals of the other students. This was due as much to his perception of them as their reluctance to endure his surly personality and mismatched clothes. As he witnessed seductive Barcelona call each of the kids into its traditional dance, its sardana, he fancied himself a pious noble, immune to the world’s temporal charms.

There were no provisions in the scholarship to fly him home for the holiday season. Instead, the Catholic youth organization that sponsored him provided a Christmas pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Though Franklin had been raised in a Catholic household, he carefully guarded from his parents that the presence of religion gave him little more than a vague moral sense and a taste for wine.

The group’s visit to Bethlehem the day before had awakened Franklin’s impatience with religion. Standing at the Church of the Nativity, the guide pointed out the holy grotto where, at least beneath their breaths, Catholics believed Christ was born. Next door, the Greek Orthodox Church had its own more elaborate sacred site commemorating the same event. It seemed everywhere they traveled the priests and guides were recreating a story that gave their faith precedence.

Franklin knew the stories. He even enjoyed many of them, as an adult enjoys re-reading the favorite books of his youth. But the dogged assertion that each place they visited was important because of one man’s presence rang false to him. History and faith were so infused in this land that this insistence on placing miracles seemed redundant.

He pictured a map of his own life, the pathetic small steps from home: to school; to church; to the store; and then this leap across continents. Who would understand the course of a modern life? More important, to Franklin anyway, who would care to?

But the significance of the land was not lost on him. Being here, it was clear that there was much more than religion to the place. The deep intersection of faiths, and the sharp edge of violence that permeated Israel, awakened a sense of spirit in him that surpassed anything he had felt since leaving home.

So, while their return bus to Jerusalem stopped at a tourist stand filled with crucifixes and rosaries made of “holy” stone, Franklin remained on the bus, staring over the barren hills of the Holy Land.

His small group of students had seen the Western Wall that morning. Heavy rain forced them, capped with flimsy cardboard yarmulkes, into an enclosed area just to the left of the wall to watch the Jewish men pray. Many of their arms were wrapped with leather straps, which terminated at their heads and fists in small leather boxes. These were tefellin filled with handwritten excerpts from the Torah meant to express the devout commitment, head to heart to hand, of the worshiper. Franklin dizzied at the intimacy of the room, the intensity of their prayer, the connection between them and this place.

Amazing, then, how close the Temple Mount was. A short stairway connected to the wall led to a doorway just above. Two guards, young men with machine guns hanging from their shoulders, held the group up briefly at a small doorway. Franklin felt their eyes, filled with fear and indignation. As he passed through the door, the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock before him, he realized that the mount was actually supported by the Western Wall.

Every day, unwillingly, Jews and Muslims share their holiest sites for the personal exaltation of their own faiths, a low stone doorway the only fragile barrier between them.

The guide pointed out the Mount of Olives in the distance before they passed into the Dome of the Rock. The memory of betrayal, of the arrest made from the kiss of Judas, struck Franklin as significant.

Slipping their shoes back on after exiting the mosque, the group moved on to trace the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. Nervous, but determined to experience something of Jerusalem, Franklin slipped away to find a path to the Mount of Olives. He exited at the Lions Gate and began the short hike across the small, arid Kidron Valley.

Franklin arrived near the top of what he assumed was the mount and looked out over Jerusalem. The olive trees were mostly gone from the mountain, replaced by churches, mosques and, most notably, graves. From above, the many graves seemed to always have been a part of the rocky hillside. Death here was not a verdant pasture, separate from the outside world; it was the soil and a constant companion to life.

Wandering through the graves, he saw a child running down the hill in front of him. Franklin followed the boy a few feet until he noticed the dark-skinned youth had stopped. He wore a tattered brown sweater and jeans, and his hair was pulled low across his forehead. The look in his amber eyes reminded Franklin of the Temple Mount guards.

As Franklin approached, the boy flung a rock at him and ran off, laughing. Franklin raised his arm, too late, and the rock glanced hard off his forehead and wrist, clattering among the many rocks at his feet as it landed.

He thought about chasing the child, but his body resisted. Instead he stood still among the rocks, incapable of understanding what had just happened.

Lost from the group, he found a cab and returned to the hotel. Father Clint found him asleep in the lobby, a small trickle of dried blood on his forehead.

As they stepped off the bus in Bethlehem, Father Clay stopped Franklin.

“How’s the head, son?”

“All right.” Franklin noticed the rooftop sentries surrounding the church. “Nothing says Christmas like metal detectors and machine guns, right?”

“I’m sorry about what happened to you today.”

“I’m not.”

“But please, this is no time to be glib. Even if you find yourself doubting, you must be considerate of the faith of others. If you want to talk …”

Franklin nodded, leaving Father Clint to guide the others through the metal detectors, and walked into a small, curtained booth where he presented his passport and ticket for admission to the square. Again, guns everywhere, Franklin noticed, some in hands even younger than his own. He wondered if they truly fought for belief. Or, like the boy who launched the rock at him earlier, perhaps the innate joy came from the fight itself.

As the others waited in line to enter the Christmas Eve mass, Franklin wondered at the carnival atmosphere in the square, with gospel choirs, television stars and the glint of machine guns like stars guiding the faithful to ground zero.

They returned to the hotel that night hung over from their whirlwind day. Soon, the two public phone booths in the lobby were filled with students and a line trailed down the service hallway. Franklin joined the line.

The sound of Christmas rang behind his sister’s voice, trains whirring, a baby’s cry. A music box played the same tune that had annoyed him during the bus ride. The excesses of home compared with the relative poverty of his surroundings hit hard, and he felt unsure how to connect the two.

“How is it there? Snow on the ground?” was all he could think to ask.

“Nope. Dry as a bone. How about yourself? You’re missed, you know.”

“It’s strange here, Sis. Doesn’t feel much like Christmas, though I guess it should.”

“You’re certainly in the right place for it.”

He thought of the child with the rock, the smile on his face as he threw it. He tried to picture himself with a machine gun strapped around his neck and laughed softly.

“I suppose there’s always something to be thankful for.”

So they floated, each emerging from the Dead Sea with pimpled skin. The tour guide carried a bucket of mud from the hotel, and each of them reached deeply into the storied soil. Franklin rubbed the coarse mud in, feeling the mineral sting on his sore wrist and head. Then he dove back in, rinsed himself clean and climbed onto the bus, shivering, to return home.