A guest entry from Robin.
If an Israeli says, "Don’t worry, it will be alright," run for your life! After several days of experiencing this disjoint between assurance and reality, I think that it’s an expression of their faith in God, and has no connection with the problem at hand. Sometimes it’s assurance that you’re not being ripped off, when in fact you are. Honesty, among many of these folks is a different concept than in the U.S. At home, I expect some politicians and most corporate p.r. people to lie to me. Otherwise, we live in a culture that expects honesty. Here, the taxi drivers, many merchants, especially those who deal with tourists, and many business people lie as a way of life. I’m working on theories of "the other" and what a society with so many "others" does with that plurality. If you’re "not us", ethnically, nationally, religiously, or politically, there is no contract to treat the other well.
Driving in Jerusalem is cross between "chicken" and forebearance. At intersections and anywhere traffic merges, the merging car heads into thick traffic and other cars let them in. In the left lane on the freeway, a car will speed up to just behind the one in front of him and the front car will merge to the right. As a pedestrian, you walk into traffic and drivers first speed up (to make sure that you’re serious) and then stop. After I had figured this out, Doug scared me into hyperventilation by screaming "Stop!" when I had just waded into traffic, and the driver sped up. The social contract works when everyone is equally aggressive and equally polite. Yesterday’s newspaper reported that six times more Israelis die in car accidents than in terrorist attacks, so I’m not sure what percentage of the time the social contract works. Today we rented a car and Doug was quite proud of successfully nosing across and into traffic in situations that would never occur in Seattle. Tonight the cabdriver who had blithely ripped us off for about 5 shekels ($1), also backed down 15 yards on a main street to continue to back about 30 yards to get to our hotel. He cheerfully explained that, "You get to do things like this when you drive a taxi."
We spent two days walking the Old City. Four quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish, Arab. Many of the Arabs are Christian, many shops and people are not in their "appropriate" corners. It’s a warren of twisting alleys, hole-in-the wall shops, many residences, churches, synagogues, mosques, the Western (Wailing) Wall, the Stations of the Cross, a new way into the Dome of the Rock, beggers, black-clad Hasids, priests, nuns, and ministers, dark-eyed kids, aggressive merchants, scruffy cats, religious paraphenalia of the three monotheist religions on one shelf, kosher and halal cafes, and layers upon layers of history.
The best moment: at 11:45, sitting on the 3rd floor roof of a café with Doug and my neice, Felicity: muzzeins from 3 different mosques began to chant the call to prayer. One voice was very high, and piercing. It penetrated to the heart and bones of all of us. Moments after the chanting stopped, the noon church bells began. The Church of the Redeemer, across the street, had two huge deep-voiced resonate bells. Up the hill were smaller churches with single clangers. We were transfixed.
A few days before, I’d had my first experience with the Wall. I began with beginner’s mind—not much anticipation, just wonder. First I stood in meditation. On the men’s side, several shofars (rams’ horns) were being blown in longish blasts. Several different groups were holding morning prayer services. A Hasidic song, familiar to me, floated over from the men’s side. I sang along for a while, and then the waves of feeling hit. Joy, grief, awe, awareness, awareness, awareness, more feeling, more awareness. Of what? The layers of historical meaning for me as a Jew, the emotions of all around me, the longing, the connectedness and the separation of so many standing beside me and across the wall that separated me from the men, and my husband, the years of strife over this stretch of wall, the subdued singular prayer of the woman contrasting with the organized groups of men, the Dome of the Rock shining above our heads, sitting on its quiet plaza, the all-too-important identities of the people who surrounded me.
I stood for awhile. When I had grounded myself, I did some of the usual morning prayers of gratitude, the Shma—Jewish Renewal-style (God is everything, everything is God), the end of the Kaddish, which is a prayer for peace, then a song I learned: "God bless the children of Ismail/God bless the children of Israel/God bless the peace of Jerusalem/Jerusalem will live in peace./(Shalom/Salaam) X3 /Jerusalem will live in peace." Then back to tears and grounded meditation.
What’s hard for me as a religious humanist, is that so many religions speak to me. I’ve done practice from many and while I can critique the liturgies, I can’t separate the experience. (Yes I can—those that work for me and those that don’t.) I’ve danced Sufi Zikker, done tons of Buddhist and some Hindu practice, was raised Jewish and do an almost daily Jewish practice. I can’t buy exclusion in any religion, especially Judaism. Come on, chosen for what? It literally leads to death for both the non-chosen "others" or for that part of ourselves that is all the others. (Everything is me, I am everything—in a non-dual sort of way.)
We walked the Stations of the Cross. Some have chapels surrounding them, some are plaques on ally walls in the Arab quarter. As we got to the last stations, we walked up a story to a roof of the Coptic monestary, where the Ethipiopians have their piece of the Stations. (The Ottoman empire divided the Church of the Holy Sepulchre into six unequal parts to settle the horrible squabbling amongst the Christian sects who claimed the land where Jesus was crucified and rose again.) That roof was the holiest feeling place on the entire walk. As Doug walked around snapping pictures in focused bliss, Felicity and I sat on some stairs and watched the Ethiopian monks and a nun smiling and laughing together as another sat reading under flapping laundry. It was peaceful. This Jew-Bu woman, ½ Jewish/ ½ Catholic / non-practising girl/ and recovering Methodist guy, all found the gentle communion of these gentle people the most moving place of all the stations. It was dynamic. The rest of the Sepulcher felt as dead as the Roman ruins at Caesarea—nice tile, but nobody’s home.
Doug says I should tell you one of my responses: Inside the Sepulchre, right before the Roman Catholic part, we saw a large painting of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. A tour guide said that the sacrifice was a precursor to God sacrificing Jesus. Spontaneously, I put my hands on my hips, and said, "I don’t think so!" Layers and layers and layers.
If I had been raised Christian, I might have had a different experience. But as I looked around the bizarrely fractionated church, I didn’t see many people (and most were Christian), having a religious experience. It was spectacle, not participation. I think nearly any church in the world does a better job of bringing people to a God experience than does witnessing a thousand-year-old divvied-up depiction of what happened. But that’s just my opinion. It does depict a powerful story.