Our Own Private Jerusalem
Last night (it’s early Sunday morning now) our group was in a park near our hotel, celebrating the end of the Jewish Sabbath. It was the first time I have experienced this ritual, which (among other things) seeks to help you make the difficult transition from a day of rest and reflection into the tumultuous world of the other six days. We were standing in a circle, holding hands and singing songs that were undoubtedly very old, but were new to me. Nearby a Muslim family was picnicking, and two young girls (perhaps teenagers) laughed and seemed to play a game of tag. Earlier, when our group had been sitting cross-legged and noshing (I alone was standing, as my hamstrings have yet to be blessed by any sort of elasticity), one of these girls had repeatedly chased the other, giggling, into and out of the periphery of our group. I had idly thought that it seemed a bit weird that they would do this — slightly enter the space of our group — but I’d just assumed that these frolicking children were so caught up in their game that they hadn’t noticed. But now, as we were standing and singing and swaying, this family (perhaps there was more than one), adults and kids, picked up and began streaming past us — and as they did so, several of them (including some teenaged-looking boys) seemed to mock us, crudely imitating our gestures and the sounds we were making. It wasn’t really threatening — we’re mostly from rough-and-tumble Berkeley, after all, where an idle display of weakness can instantly rob you of your status at the Juice Bar Collective — but it did make me think, and feel. I thought about how I’d felt so separate from the Orthodox Jews I’d encountered in the Old City. I thought that this mocking behavior, gentle as it was, must reflect a deep, lifelong experience of feeling that you have been treated as less-than. I thought back to when I was a child in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and would ride the Number 4 bus past an Orthodox Jewish temple and think to myself that the people in their strange clothes looked silly. I thought, “But we’re for peace, and we hate racism!” And then I thought, “To them this nuance is either unapparent or doesn’t matter — we are simply members of the tribe that they resent, or even despise: we are Jews in Palestine.” I thought, “Some people hate us not because of who we are as individuals or what we have done, but because of how they think of us collectively.” I felt an enormous chasm open between this gentle scene and the terrors that people have lived through, and died in. I was proud to be in our group, which kept singing and swaying. I felt the great distance between here and where I wish we were, politically. I realized that wishing — and thinking, and hoping — are not enough, that things only change when you work for that change. I acknowledged to myself that struggling for a peaceful coexistence in a passionate world seems daunting indeed. I felt the strong possibility of continued and extended failure. I thought of what a privilege it is to stand with dignity in a park with family and friends. I missed my father. I felt both a stranger and, somehow, a citizen of this strange land. And I felt, and I thought, all these things at the same time.
The Muslim family had passed us and left the park. Out of the corner of my eye I’d seen older people among them, looking weary and perhaps wary. It was nearly dark; the Sabbath was almost over. I glanced up at the increasingly bustling street above the park, and saw a traffic light, glowing bright, go from red to green.
* * *
On Friday we had spent most of the day in the Old City. We made our way through some of the Jewish Quarter and some of the Armenian Quarter (and maybe another quarter as well) until we reached the entrance to a series of tunnels that go under the Muslim Quarter. As we passed a guard sitting lazily at the entrance with a book, someone in front of me on line said “Shalom” to him; the young guy nodded and continued humming the Tom Jones tune “It’s Not Unusual.”
Jared, our tour guide, used a plastic model to show us how the Second Temple was built up by King Herod, a Jew who also had to make nice with the Romans. Herod strikes me as kind of a Steve Jobs of his time — fanatically attending to every detail of design. Jared pointed out how Herod even had the side of the mountain onto which his workers were building carefully sculpted so that it seemed like an extension of the Temple walls.
A bit earlier, as we’d gathered near the Dung Gate — whose name wins points on directness — Jared had asked us to try to engage in a brief act of memory: to try to recall our very first memory of being ourselves. Sue, a member of our group, said, “It’s hard to know what’s a memory and what’s a dream.” And I could feel the realization ripple around our little circle that what she had just said was very appropriate on many levels.
As we made our way through the tunnels Jared told us about how a special group of Jews, the Levites, were once responsible for all the logistics of Temple rituals. This instantly made sense to me, as my friend Myra Levy is very good at logistics.
We learned many things on this walk: that the Russian Orthodox Church owns much of the actual land in Israel; that the Old City is one of the most densely populated places on earth (it felt like it); that Herod was crazy for fake marble. We saw women praying fervently in a part of the tunnels that is said to be closest to “the Holy of Holies”; I wondered whether they were praying here, rather than on the outside part of the Wall, at least in part because they felt less judgment and segregation. My wife placed a piece of paper with the names of our loved ones in a crack in the Wall; I prayed for their happiness and good health.
We emerged into the daylight of the Via Dolorosa, which — if I have this right — at least begins in the Muslim Quarter, even though it is supposed to trace Jesus’ path toward crucifixion and resurrection. Suddenly many of the tourists were speaking Spanish and Italian. I went to an Episcopalian choir school for many years, and my father’s best friend was a Presbyterian minister, and I had the sense — looking at the portraits depicting a suffering Jesus — of being back home, in a way.
We reached an archeological site. As Jared spoke, at great length, we felt our will to live being sapped by the blazing sun — until Rabbi Creditor gently interjected, “Shade is also holy.”
A short time later we stood in an at least slightly shaded area in front of yet another archeological dig. As Jared was talking, people literally began streaming up out of the ground behind him. Looking on in amazement, Menachem explained to us that among them was the woman who leads the opposition in Israel — it was literally like watching the political underground emerge into the light of day.
As we left the Old City, a seemingly endless line of young — and I mean young — Israeli soldiers, carrying scary-looking weapons that seemed so incongruous given their unlined features, flowed in through the Dung Gate. Jared explained that there was to be a protest against the Israeli government, scheduled to coincide with the the Muslim Sabbath. (A draconian-sounding law, forbidding boycotts, had recently been passed by the Israeli Knesset.) I thought, “So many different faiths in such a tight space, and in such heat!” But I must say — and this is something that others in my group have talked about as well — overall my experience in the Old City was of fantastically diverse people interacting with courtesy, curiosity, and grace, of faiths and cultures being blessed by their proximity to others, of porous borders, of children who were children — not types, not Others, just children of God.
* * *
On Friday night our group gathered by another section of the Wall — one that had been reserved by a Masorti congregation (known as “Conservative” in the States). Rabbi Creditor had announced in Facebook that we would be there, and a bunch of other folks — including a rabbi who’d been his classmate at seminary — showed up. At this part of the Wall there was no one to tell us that men had to be separate from women. There were huge stones piled at the foot of the Wall — it was kind of like a set from Star Trek (though, as Menachem pointed out when I mentioned this, the ones in Star Trek would probably have been much lighter). With prayers and songs, we greeted the Jewish Sabbath. As I leaned against one of the big stones, I wondered whether I was being sacrilegious in doing so — but then I saw another guy leaning against a stone, and he seemed like he knew what he was doing, so I assumed it was okay. (Later, Menachem suggested that possibly someone had looked at me and reassured themselves in this same way.) I vacillated between trying to feel the sacredness and actually feeling it, I apologized silently both to these lovely people and to my secular parents for my partial apostasy in each direction, and I was, for a few moments, utterly at peace.