REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM—To me, travel means trying to understand places, appreciating them for what they are, and making them my own. But sometimes my ability to do that breaks down.
It happened in Jerusalem, one of the oldest, most revered and emotional cities in the world. Modern West Jerusalem, with its restaurants, shops, hotels and museums, was not the problem.
But the Old City -- a 0.35-square-mile patch of stony hilltop covered with churches, mosques and synagogues wrapped in thick Ottoman walls -- made my heart sick, which was not the way I wanted to feel in Jerusalem with Christmas coming.
At one point during my weekend stay I called my sister-in-law, Susan, an Episcopalian clergywoman, who said that Jerusalem was for pilgrims, not tourists, however drawn they may be to the city's history and theology.
Maybe she was right. Maybe only people who come with unwavering faith can handle the Old City.
Without it, the contest to own Jerusalem that has been waged by Jews, Muslims and Christians since the time of the Crusades remains palpable enough to confirm the disbelief of an atheist.
For someone like me, who was brought up Christian but had the kind of liberal education that opens the mind to what is useful and good in all religions, visiting Jerusalem can be wrenching.
It is, of course, the holy of holy for Jews, because it is thought to be where Abraham proved himself willing to sacrifice his son to God.
About 2,000 years ago, a child born in the nearby village of Bethlehem was recognized by early Christians as the Messiah foretold in Jewish scripture. The Via Dolorosa in the Old City follows the path he took to his crucifixion.
The city's Muslim meaning is established in passages of the Koran describing the prophet Muhammad's night journey. It says the Angel Gabriel told him to ride to the mosque farthest from Mecca, which is thought to have been on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Old City's political history has even more layers. Since 1900 alone, it has been ruled by Ottoman Turks; the British; Jordan, which claimed the Old City in 1948; and Israel, which took it back after the 1967 Six-Day War.
If the Cliff Notes version of Jerusalem seems fairly cut-and-dried, the story on the ground is anything but. Even on a peaceful and sunny November weekend, I felt currents of the latest tug-of-war for Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians.
On a Friday afternoon I sped into town from a Tel Aviv suburb, where I'd dropped my friend Penny at her sister's house, regretfully declining an invitation to join them for Shabbat dinner.
But I wanted to reach Jerusalem by dark when Jews congregate at the Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
When I arrived, I parked and headed for Damascus Gate on the north side of the Old City. To find it, I followed the streams of black-hatted Hasidim racing toward the wall to welcome the Sabbath at sunset.
Surrounded by a bustling street market, Damascus Gate leads through the dense, dark, souk-like Muslim Quarter, across an intersection with the Via Dolorosa, through a tunnel and security checkpoint to the Western Wall Plaza.
The open, amphitheater-like space was crowded with Israeli soldiers, sightseers and worshipers.
Near the cordon delimiting the male section of the wall, a scene like no other in the world unfolded: Men prayed, bowed, danced and wept in a full range of Jewish garb.
Only later, when I read Thomas L. Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem," did I begin to fathom the difference between the crocheted yarmulkes of modern Orthodox Jews and the fur hats of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim.