Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Year in Jeruslaem

Everything changes; the trick is keeping the whole from breaking into fragments...people divided by fear and hatred.

Back in 1984 I left my midwestern college behind and headed abroad. After two years of isolating depression, I was ready to risk exploring the world. Jerusalem seemed an obvious choice.

I had grown up with National Geographic and a full bookshelf, worlds waiting to be explored. Like many I was naive about the Middle East/Near East--if you prefer, the "Holy Land." I remember a picture edition of the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli underdogs having captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians, they stood awestruck before the Western Wall of the Temple Mount; a bare-headed, young soldier surrounded by his helmeted brethren transported me to that moment.

Looking through Leon and Jill Uris' Jerusalem I imagined a modern people living in an ancient land. The massive stones in the photography were no longer called a wailing wall of a defeated people; they were liberated touchstones of our collective past, a symbolic gateway to the off-limits world above (the Temple Mount now hosting the "Dome of the Rock"--the site of Abraham's almost-sacrifice of his son and, as another story goes, the place from where Mohammed rode a horse to heaven. Maybe that site also had an earlier origin, like the kaaba stone in Mecca where once the female aspect of divinity was also acknowledged); they were now tangible to all. Poring over Yigal Yadin's Masada I gazed at Judaea's famous plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. I envisioned scenes out of Sunday School...Israelites battling Roman soldiers, and then committing suicide instead of being taken as slaves.

I went to Hebrew school twice a week from age 8 onward until my Bat Mitzvah in the eighth grade. I remember inviting my friends from my school to attend. I loved singing the songs and read a speech about Ahad Ha'am and his vision of a modern Israel rooted in justice for all people.

The one-year program at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where Einstein's library was kept, attracted a polyglot of foreign students mixing with the Israelis, both Arab and Jewish. It would be a dream come true.

Arriving at the Givat Ram campus located in the Western half of Jerusalem, I enjoyed the exotic birds and eucalyptus trees. It truly was a blooming desert. In the evenings I listened to kids from California and Canada playing guitars and singing Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen songs. On one of my first city bus rides across town to Mount Scopus, I happened to sit next to woman in Arab dress. I spoke of my excitement of being there for a year, learning about the people of this land. Before she exited I said, "Salaam Aleikum;" she answered, "Shalom Aleichem."

Up on Mount Scopus in Eastern Jerusalem overlooking the Old City on the next hill, there was a different feel to the place. The University resembled a concrete fortress awaiting a siege. Across from the dorms stood Hadassah Hosptial (cut off during the War of Independence, many lives were lost bringing it supplies from Western Jerusalem). Behind it the hazy desert valleys leading down toward the Dead Sea, a Palestinian shepherd and his goats were the only sign of life.

Although the war with Lebanon was ongoing, Jerusalem seemed unaffected. The occasional sonic boom overhead reminded me I was no longer in Michigan. My ulpan teachers in Hebrew class were two young Israelis right out of the army of Iraqi and Yemeni descent. Moreh Yossi tossed a bit of chalk at me whenever I spoke English. Soon I was even dreaming in Hebrew. In my class were kids from around the globe including non-Jewish Germans who wished to make a difference and a Lutheran from Georgia whose father led a Jerusalem church. Slightly disturbing was her disappointment that extremists had recently failed to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

At the Mt. Scopus dorms my hallmates were mostly American and Canadian, although there was one from Morocco and even an Israeli Arab. A friend, who studied both Hebrew and Arabic, introduced me to a classmate with whom we debated.

One evening a young religious woman knocked on my door as I studied. She was going around inviting students to come to the Western Wall on Friday afternoon to be paired with a family for Shabbat. I told her my story and about my family. That's when she told me with sincerity that I wasn't a Jew. "Excuse me," I said. She went on that because my mother hadn't converted according to Orthodox standards, she and therefore I weren't Jews. Shock overtook me. What matter, I said, if she studied with rabbis of the Conservative tradition? She used the mikveh and won the approval of the beit din, the council of rabbis. It wasn't good enough, the young woman told me. Stunned and angered I declined her invitation to convert according to orthodoxy. I was already a Jew, I told her. I had no desire to become like her. Thus began an education.

[ be continued]

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