Thursday, July 22, 2010

If Religion, Then..... Why?

Church of All Nations

On Tuesday, while we were fasting for Tisha B'Av, Stu and I went to the Mount of Olives.

Getting there from our home was an interesting experience.  It only took about half an hour, but in that short time we drove thru new Jerusalem, and via the religious neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Bar Ilan, crossed into Arab East Jerusalem near the area of the Temple Mount.  Driving onward, we followed the walls of the Old City to the Mount of Olives, where we found parking across from a long row of tourist buses that lined the approach to the Church of All Nations.

The area was filled with tourists from around the world.  We saw groups and independent travelers from places as widespread as Korea and Italy.  Most were focusing their sights on the church and its surroundings (which includes the Garden of Gethsemane), but while we lingered a bit, the focus of our visit was across the road.

Directly across the street from the Church of All Nations lies the Jewish cemetery at the Mount of Olives.  With its view of the Old City walls and of modern Jerusalem beyond them, you would expect that tourists to the area would be eager to take at least a few moments to explore the cemetery and its view.

But we didn't notice any tour guides pointing out the view to their groups, and almost no one turned around or crossed the road to take photos. 

Sounds odd, doesn't it?

The explanation might lie in the reason for our visit:  to see and walk among the thousands of old and ancient Jewish graves which were destroyed during the years of Jordanian occupation before Israel gained control of the area in the 1967 war.

The contrast from one side of the street to the other is quite remarkable- and uncomfortable.

On one side are two very elaborately decorated churches- the richly painted Church of All Nations, and the gold plated onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church above it.

On the other side of the road, facing the walls of the Old City (and the view of the golden Dome of the Rock peeking above them), are tens of thousands of graves, many of which still lay in ruins, their tombstones smashed, the earth around them strewn with debris.

Over 40 years ago, shortly after the '67 war, I visited the area for the first time, and although I was only 11 years old, the sadness of that visit is still burned in my mind.

Although Israel had only regained control of the area a few months before, valient efforts were being made to restore the cemetery.  I'll never forget the sight of dozens of people wandering through the destruction, trying to locate the graves of loved ones.  It seemed like an impossible task- how could they hope to locate anything amidst those piles of rubble?

The destruction was so intense, that 40 years later the restoration is still not complete.  In 19 years of occupation, the Jordanians had worked hard to destroy the cemetery, desecrating and uprooting graves dating from biblical times to our modern era. 

Part of the goal of the restoration work was to reopen the cemetery to new burials as soon as possible- an ironic testament to the endurance of the Jewish people.

Walking among that destruction, trying to decipher the faded lettering on cracked tombstones, I found myself overwhelmed with the feelings of frustration and confusion that often haunt me when I travel around Israel.

Those feelings were particularly disturbing that day:

How could it be, at a place that is deeply holy to so many people, that we were immersed in the evidence of the deliberate desecration of one one religion, while within clear sight of the golden domes of two others?

How could it be, that visitors who came from all over the world to glory in the beginnings of their own religion, not turn around and reflect upon another?

Since the inception of this blog, I've avoided writing about these reflections.  It's so much easier, and of course more pleasant, to enjoy each day without having to think of all the whys of the world.

But Tisha B'Av, of all days, is the time for exactly those questions.  Not just for Jews- for everyone.  And maybe now that I've finally started talking about them, I'll find the strength and determination to return to those reflections regularly. 

In the meantime, I have a feeling that each time I put on the sandals I wore that day,  the fine grains of sand from the cemetery still clinging to the crevices and soles will strengthen my identity with the thousands of years of Jewish struggle and fortitude in this region- linking me to my past in a reminder of how, after a lifetime of longing, I emigrated to Israel.. but at the same time, continuing to raise a deep turbulance within me as new dimensions of whys continue to fight their way to the surface.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


If you're chuckling at the illustration to the left, chances are you've been in Israel in the summer.  I don't know if it's a macho Middle Eastern thing, or if it's just part of the Sabra (native Israeli) culture, but Israelis seem to feel that it takes an entire can of lighter fluid to start a bbq!

While the air on summer days may have a touch of smoke from a nearby forest fire, you can be sure that come nightfall, the smoke you smell- and you will smell smoke, that's a guarantee- is from someone's grill. 

In Jerusalem, you know you're approaching Sacher Park by the clouds of smoke from family bbqs drifting onto the road.  Residents who drive by know to be prepared for a moment or two of temporary blindness, while visitors to the city have a landmark to help them find their way.

We've become used to quickly running around the apartment, shutting windows, whenever we get a first whiff of lighter fluid from our neighbors' terraces.   If we're not fast enough, within moments white puffs of smoke start drifting over our yard and into our home, followed by half an hour or more of gray clouds of smoke filling the air.  I guess in one sense we're fortunate that Israelis have a proclivity for an overuse of lighter fluid- at least it gives us a heads up to seal our apartment before being inundated with smoke!

This post is dedicated to our new downstairs neighbors, who certainly broke all smoke records last night.   I was doing some gardening in the front of our apartment, when my husband came out to warn me that our house had quickly filled with smoke from the downstairs bbq.  (He had been outside helping me for a while, so we were caught unawares.)

It was the first time that the new neighbors had started their grill, and it was memorable- they must have been smoking something, because a thick white column of smoke rose from their terrace all night.   Both floors of our apartment were filled with smoke, and we were caught in a bind- close the windows to keep more smoke from getting in, but in doing so trap any smoke that was already there; or try to keep the air circulating with open windows and fans, with the hope that we'd have some chance of clearing the air.

We kept the windows open, figuring that within an hour they'd be finished cooking, and the smoke would stop, never thinking that the smoke would go on and on (and on and on!).   Being the neighborly type, I hesitated going downstairs to say something, because I could hear that they had company, and didn't want to embarrass them or interrupt their evening.  But at 11pm, with the smoke still pouring into our apartment (by then I had shut most of the windows), I finally knocked on their door. 

[Aside: by writing that, I just gave away my immigrant status.  No native Israeli would have waited that long to complain.  (And again, if you've ever spent time in Israel, you can add a few other differences in approach .. !)]

Our interaction was very pleasant and civilized, although he did mention that he wasn't finished grilling yet.  (Gulp!)   I asked him to please, in the future, let us know before he started grilling, and also suggested that he consider moving his grill to the other side of his terrace, a bit further away from our apartment (but of course, that would mean the smoke would then be directed at his apartment, so I don't see that happening any time soon!).

This morning our home was still somewhat smoky, and when I returned from errands a short while ago, the smell of smoke hit me as soon as I opened the front door.

I know this sounds like a rant (go ahead, tell me you wouldn't be ranting in this situation!), but it's actually more of a reflection of life here in Israel (really!). 

You just gotta laugh  (and sometimes -OK, often!- shrug your shoulders, and sigh :-) ) .