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.


  1. Ah! So many things to say here! We must skype soon about this post...lurves, Ginny.

  2. Leah: I visited the Temple Mount last year, and agree with you that it is simply breathtaking. Like the Alhambra in Spain, it's a place where I would love to spend a whole day, or many days. I too am surprised by how many Jews don't know that we are actually allowed to go up there (albeit for limited amounts of time). If you get a chance to take the tour of religious sites run by the people in the red shirts who do the free walking tour from Jaffa Gate, you should. They give a great explanation of the Mount.

  3. Simcha ZevitJuly 18, 2011

    Hi Leah!! YOu write so beautifully - thanks for "bringing us along with you" through your words and the connection to you and your experience that comes through reading them! I am pretty sure your mom and I visited the Temple Mount on our high school visit to Israel ( or maybe it was another time I was there...but I think it was with your mom!).

    We were in touch quite a while ago about my friend's partner in the creation of the Yoga and Jewish Spirituality Teacher Training Institute who lives in Jerusalem. Do you know of her? Diane Bloomfield is her name. Let me know if you want info about how to be in touch with her. Also, check out - I think you'd really enjoy going there for one of their Friday night services.

    Sending love to you in Yerush!!
    Aunt Suse/Simcha

  4. I love you. I am learning from you. Thank you. Hari Aum!