Monday, July 18, 2011

Shalom, Salaam

This post is by Leah

“It’s a slippery word, Jerusalem, it can be an idea as well as a place: a goal, an exaltation.”
–Salman Rushdie


A few days ago I visited the Temple Mount.

There are few places in the world as holy, or as wholly disputed, as the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition this is not only the land that held the First and Second Temples, but also the place where (as lore has it) God gathered the dust to create Adam and later where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in a test of faith. For Jews, this is the holy of the holies. In Islamic tradition it is believed that it is from the Temple Mount that Mohammed led prophets in prayer and ascended to join Allah in heaven. The Muslim community has held control over the site since the Crusades and is home to the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The site is Islam’s third holiest place after Mecca and Medina.

I mention all of this because historical context has always helped me understand modern beliefs, bias, and feelings about a place.

I have found that my favorite places to visit when traveling are most often ancient sites with historical, religious, and/or spiritual relevance. Thus a visit to the Temple Mount was at the top of my “to-do list” in Jerusalem. I learned upon my arrival in Israel that the Temple Mount is a place that most Jewish institutions caution against visiting. However Lonely Planet, a backpacker’s bible, says that the site is “one of the required stops on any visit to the Old City.” A required stop. I was in.

I arrived at the Bab al-Maghariba (Gate of the Moors), the only gate non-Muslim tourists are allowed to enter from, in my floor length dress and sweater. I approached the first set of Israeli guards, “Shalom. Where are you from? Why do you want to visit the site? Why didn’t anyone come with you?” I carefully answered each question and moved past the first set of guards into an airport-style security screening room. “Where are you from?” “New York.” “Do you like Obama?” “I do, very much.” “You know he is a Muslim.” “No, he’s a Christian.” “No. His middle name is Hussein. He is Muslim.” There is a time and place to have these sorts of infuriating conversations. Arguing with an Israeli soldier who is armed with an automatic rifle while trying to get into a hotly disputed area… not the time. I walked out of the security room and approached the last set of Israeli guards; after three rounds of questioning and a security screening, I was finally allowed to walk up the covered wooden ramp that leads to the Temple Mount.

“Salaam!” Arab guards greeted me as I emerged from the shaded walkway and onto the sun drenched Temple Mount. I walked through a tree-lined courtyard where small groups of men were quietly studying the Qur’an. I found a shady nook, pulled out my Lonely Planet and read a detailed history of the site. I walked towards the al-Aqsa mosque and an elderly Arab man approached me, “Salaam. Do you have any questions?” “Salaam.” I replied, “I’m ok, Shukran.” (Shukran is thank you in Arabic) “Have a nice day,” The man offered in broken English. I moved towards the magnificent Dome of the Rock. “Salaam. Would you like a picture?” “Yes, please. Shukran.”

There are only a handful of buildings that have actually taken my breath away; the Dome of the Rock is one of those buildings. The iconic golden dome is certainly spectacular, but enough cannot be said about the intricate mosaics that cover the octagonal walls. In a city that is washed in a muted sand-colored palate, the vibrancy of the blue/green-dominated mosaic is near mirage-like. As I circumnavigated the building, another Arab man approached me to ask if I needed help or if I wanted him to take my camera inside of the building to take pictures. Non-Muslims are no longer allowed to enter the magnificent edifice. I politely declined; I’ve travelled enough to know that this seemingly kind offer would have come with a small fee.

I once again made my way towards the al-Aqsa mosque and spent a few minutes watching a group of Muslim women pray outside of the walls of the mosque. Jerusalem is a city that somehow finds a way to pose complicated questions at every turn. Another elderly Arab man approached to ask if I needed any help, I asked him the pronunciation of the mosque, al-Ak-sa. He continued to give me a basic history of the place and asked if he could answer any more questions. I politely declined and thanked him for his help. I took one more lap around the site, breathed in the clear sky and fresh air before making my way back through the crowed alleyways of the Old City.


As I began talking about my experience on the Temple Mount with people, both here and back home, the range and intensity of reactions shocked me. I got everything from fascination to anger, with the predominant response being, “really?!” I was entirely unprepared for the severity of the response. What most upset me was the, “I can’t believe you would do something so irresponsible! Do you know how dangerous that was, especially for a Jew?”

Now I’m certainly not an expert, but I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, with more than a bit of it in controversial places. I’d like to think that I am responsible traveler. I check travel advisories, I follow local news, I try to dress appropriately, I always learn how to say at least hello and thank you in the language, and above all I make a conscious effort to enter every place with an open mind and a touch of empathy. I have learned more about history, culture, humanity, and the resiliency of the human spirit from people I’ve met than I could ever learn from a book.

The fact of the matter is that it is not any more dangerous for a tourist to visit the Temple Mount than any other divisive place. It is true that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate placed a ban on Jewish access to the Temple Mount, but not because of security. “The chief rabbis were following Maimonides' view that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is still present at the spot of the Temple. Entry to it is forbidden and punishable with kareth (death by heavenly decree), given that Jews are in a state of ritual uncleanliness today in the absence of a red heifer, the ashes of which are required for the purifying process.” I am a Jew, but I am not abstaining from visiting anywhere because I don’t have the ashes of a red heifer with which to purify myself. Excuse the momentary sarcasm; my point is that, the only recommendation against Jews visiting the Temple Mount is from Orthodox Rabbis who don’t believe that the Jews, or any other people for that matter, are pure enough to enter the holy site.

Yet, there is a general consensus among most Jewish institutions that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount. So I have to ask, why? Is it a matter of security? There are Israeli guards, each equipped with an automatic riffle, stationed at every entrance/exit. I certainly never felt unsafe. Is it a matter of hostility? Every person I spoke with greeted me with a smile and “Salaam.” These were lovely, friendly people. Not only did I feel safe, I felt welcome. Is it a matter of religious sensitivities? I am proudly Jewish, but I’m not, especially in Jerusalem, obviously Jewish. It is entirely possible, perhaps probable, that my experience would have been different were I a man wearing a kippah and tzitzit. It is worth mentioning that there is currently a law in place that bans non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount. While the law is somewhat controversial, my personal feelings on the matter are that it is not only appropriate but essential to adhere to the religious customs of the place that you are in. To flaunt my Judaism here would be making a statement that I had no intention of making.


Jerusalem is a complicated city. A beautiful city, but a complicated one. It’s a city that forces you to confront your prejudices and convictions on a daily basis; a city that offers a myriad of difficult questions and very few answers; a city where prayers for peace are not enough; a city that requires inspired action.

I went to the Temple Mount because I wanted to experience first hand this “otherness” that has become so divisive. To my joy and relief, what I found was not at all other. Hindu pilgrims travel thousand of kilometers to bathe on the shores of the holy Ganges River; Catholics make their way to Rome for a glimpse of the Pope in his splendid Vatican City; Buddhist pilgrims walk over mountains to prostrate themselves before a temple in the heart of Tibet; Muslim pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously unite in Mecca for the week of the Haj; and throughout the ages Jews worldwide have gathered at the Kotel to pray in their ancestral homeland.

We’re all climbing the same mountain; we’re just taking different paths. And depending on what path we take, the terrain looks wildly different. So we dress for our environment and we use the language of our people. At times our paths intersect and it is in these moments that we have a choice. In these moments it is possible to find common language, it is possible to carve a new path together. Because it doesn’t matter to whom you pray and in what language you do it, what matters is finding the courage to live and love well. The mountain is high and the paths are long, but they’re all leading to the same place and it’s impossible to get there alone.

Peace. Namaste. Shalom. Salaam.

Friday, July 15, 2011

God is a DJ

This post is by Daniel
During orientation, we were asked take a photograph of something in Jerusalem that inspired, motivated, or challenged us. Below, my response to some graffiti I found on Hillel Street.

"God is a DJ"
This image struck me for several reasons. First of all, it’s hilarious. I imagined Moses bumping to Eazy E, cruising in his 64, bass thumping, speakers tweaked out, spinners, the works!

Second, it reminds me that there’s more than one way to be a Jew. For some, the only commandment is: “Thou shalt get down with your bad self!” I’m reminded of popular musicians like Kobi Oz and Idan Raichel, who use liturgical texts in their music, or even The Soulico Crew and Jaffa Road, who make their listeners feel good. These are the new prophets.

Finally, it reminds me of Oral Torah—the notion that Torah is comprised not only of the words on the page, but also the meaning between the words. That Torah is not set in black ink, but rather is open for interpretation in every generation. As the world changes, Torah changes with it. Our tradition teaches that this is not only valid, but that in fact the Oral Torah comes directly from Sinai. Here in Jerusalem, a city at once ancient and changing, it seems appropriate that Oral Torah be blasted at 300 watts.

Friday, July 8, 2011

One Wall, Two Perspectives

Last Saturday night, we wandered around Jerusalem for five hours and found ourselves (quite accidentally) at the Western Wall. Below, our two reactions to one place.

When I visit the Kotel, I see major inequality. The men’s section, taking up two-thirds of the Wall, with ample space to get up close and pray, next to the women’s section, where women stand in a crowd three rows deep in order to try and touch it. The varied stones the Wall is built of, unequal in size, remind me of the inequality between the genders. Once a month on Sunday mornings, progressive men and women gather at the Wall for the women to wrap tefillin, wear tallises, and read Torah. The police watch from nearby and often make arrests.

I have trouble understanding the ultra-religious. I want so badly to feel like one family, but all I do is judge them. I know I need to work on this.

On another afternoon, we walk down the street from our apartment towards the park, and on the walk we see in the distance the Security Barrier, the fence that separates Israel from the West Bank. Since its construction in 2002, suicide attacks in Israel have decreased by a half every year. And yet, I can’t help but think of the videos I’ve seen of peaceful protestors on the other side of this wall being beaten bloody and having tear gas shot at them. The stories I’ve heard of old women trying to enter Israel through one of the checkpoints, where there is much crowding and waiting, and the guards push her back and beat her. How can this Wall and that other wall carry such different meaning?

And yet, here at the Western Wall, I’m reminded of a beautiful I experience I once had. I was a counselor for a group of high school students spending the summer in Israel. As is common on Jewish youth trips, we had designed colorful group t-shirts to wear on our final day. And there we were, this group of 120 Jewish Americans, dressed matching in neon green t-shirts. And around us were men in black hats and robes, as well as young Israelis dressed in everyday work clothes with knit yarmulkes, and folks with dreadlocks tucked underneath a head wrap, and families of tourists in sunglasses and khaki shorts with cameras around their necks. And I thought to myself, this is what it means to be the People of Israel—varied in shape and in color, and yet whole.

To be here with Leah, together for the first time (I’m sure of many), and to see her reaction to this place, softens me. My grandparents and great-grandparents could only dream of this place, and here we are, casually strolling on a Saturday evening. This afternoon, we had set out with no intention of coming here at all. In fact, we had planned not to come, to save it for later. And yet, our wandering has led us straight here. What a beautiful city—that can hold both the restaurants in the German colony and the Houses of Study in the Old City; that can hold both the modern stores on Jaffa street and the beautiful gardens in Yemin Moshe; where the old kisses the new.

When I pray at the Wall, I am reminded that the name Israel means to wrestle with God. So I close my eyes, I rock forward and back, and wrestle with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might.

The last time I was in Jerusalem was quite literally half a lifetime ago. The summer I turned 13 my family took a two-week Bat Mitzvah holiday through Israel. My memories of the trip are beautiful although slightly faded, as often happens over time. However, a small handful of memories were carefully wrapped and packed in a box in a corner of my mind, which when opened (13 years later) have reappeared as vividly as the day they were packed away.

The first moment we found ourselves in view of the Kotel, it was as if the memories began rattling in their carefully packaged box. I held Daniel tight as the tears came effortlessly running down my face. I was nothing short of shocked at the immediacy of this visceral reaction. I pulled myself together as we walked through the security gate and wrapped myself in shawls to cover my legs and shoulders. As Daniel took my hand the tears came flooding back. The dust was being blown off the box. We made our way towards the Wall and Daniel asked if I wanted to walk up to it. It was at that moment the lid of the box blew off and I was face to face with the memory that had prompted the free-fall of tears. I saw a 13-year-old me standing between my mother and grandmother, all holding hands, walking towards the wall. I saw myself standing between the two women who are the great loves of my life, placing our hands and heads on the wall and praying. In that moment, being Jewish meant something. Truly meant something. And in this present moment, standing in front of the Kotel, holding hands with the man I love, it meant something again.

It is no secret that I have had a tumultuous relationship with Judaism. I am a Jew. I have a strong sense of Jewish identity and the traditions of my history hold a deep, enduring importance in my life. But I’ve never really found a way to tap into my spirituality through my religion. Unable to connect with my spirituality through Judaism, I set out in search of meaning. I’ve traveled all over the world, experiencing foreign cultures, and studying eastern religion, philosophy, and art. I was taught Theravada Buddhist prayers in a fishing village in Thailand, I meditated with Buddhist monks in Tibet, I was taught Jainism by a priest in a marble temple, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah while trekking the Nepali Himalayas and I spent Yom Kippur meditating on an Ashram in India. It took traveling around the world for me to be able to look in and find spiritual fulfillment. However this spiritual growth was something entirely separate from my religion.

Somehow, standing in front of the Western Wall, a wall that is just a wall, I felt something. Something unexplainable. Something that felt, dare I say, spiritual.

Wrapped in the arms of the man I love, remembering a moment that happened half a lifetime ago, imagining what it might be like returning to this same place with my own daughter, her hands in mine and my mother’s… for me, this is what it means to be a Jew. Yes, the Kotel is just a wall, but for thousands of years it has stood as a symbol our history, of my history.

Most days I would look at the Western Wall with frustration. Frustration, at the separation of men and women. Frustration, that women are unable to wear tallit and pray aloud. Confusion, at some of the seemingly antiquated behavior. Worry, at the state of tolerance in Israel. A collection of conflicting feelings over this exalted wall.

But this night was different than other nights. On this night, the Kotel stood as a symbol of my history. On this night, this Wall was more than a wall. On this night I was more than a girlfriend, a daughter, a granddaughter… on this night I was a Jew. And for the first time in a very long time, that meant something.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Home, Sweet Home

Hi everybody! After two long flights, a couple of delays, many cups of coffee, and three NYTimes crossword puzzles, we arrived safe and delirious in Jerusalem. Since then, we've been hard at work cleaning our apartment and making it our own. This is just the start, but we wanted to share the beginnings of our new home. Happy browsing!

Leah and Daniel

Our Apartment