The New City & more of the Old

So, today was a great day! I went out to the German Colony neighborhood [a few miles away from my hotel–and a lovely walk], to meet a Jewish contact, Ophir. He works for the ICCI–Center for Interreligious Encounter with Israel. He does seminars for groups who come over, who either are interreligious themselves, or want to learn more about Jewish/Christian/Muslim relations while they are here. [He also recruits local groups of all ages to participate in dialogue events here, too.] He is smart, interesting, and has a great sense of humor. Here are just a couple of insights from our conversation… First, when I asked him what he thought about Christians putting prayers in the Western Wall, he said, “Actually, I wonder about Jews who do that–I don’t think the postal system works better there than anywhere else.” [I love that line, and will be using it again!] He then told me this great story about people from overseas who had emailed him prayers to go in the Western Wall [something about classrooms of students doing it via his mother or something], and he couldn’t actually print them out or read them–he had a PC and they were on Mac, something like that. Anyway, so he just downloaded them all on a floppy disc, pulled out the memory strip, and stuck that in the wall! He said, “If it really works, then God should be able to read whatever format the prayers come in!” Again, I thought that was hilarious. He also talked about the concept of “proxy-gladiators” [his word]–people from the outside [that is, outside Israel & Palestine] who fight the battles, name the stakes, define the terms–on behalf of the people inside. He just feels like that isn’t helpful for Jewish/Christian/Muslim relationships here [although he did acknowledge that Palestinians might well counter, “Easy for you to say”–but he still thinks it’s true.] We also talked about the practice of Jews having a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall, and he said that contrary to what you might imagine, it is actually the less-observant Jews who tend to do that. The more observant Jews actually have a closer relationship with their own synagogue & prefer to do it there, in the midst of the community. Then, again to my great delight, he talked about the “Disneyland” feel of this industry, in which you can choose “Bar Mitzvah package #3.” [Are you getting a feel for how funny he is?] I sympathized, and said Christians are not immune to the Disney-effect, either! The last thing we were talking about [and one of the things I hope to discuss more with my colleagues] is how to make a group trip to Israel less like a “time capsule visit,” and also engage/learn about contemporary Israel/Palestine. [Incidentally, he regularly works with groups of German Lutheran seminary students, who come here and study for a year.] He noted an obvious point that stunned me–not least because I had totally overlooked its significance. He was talking about Christian tours here, and he noted that typically the only time Christians leave the first century [or earlier] is when they go to the Holocaust Museum. “What does that say,” he asked? Guilty as charged [for the most part]; and I thought, “What does that say?” Why do we add THAT particular visit, and what does that add to our time here? How does that interface with the other “holy” places of the trip? Anyway, lots more to say about this conversation–and I’ll be seeing him again tomorrow, too. Great food for thought! Then, it was back to the Old City, and more wandering. The big highlight of today was I FINALLY found the secret stretch between the Dung Gate and the Jaffa Gate that I had been missing on my run: there has been this one point in the Armenian Quarter that I simply wasn’t finding my way around, and I have been forced to run on the street for a short distance to get from one point on the wall path to another. Well, today, I finally explored the Armenian Quarter, which I had not done before, and low and behold, I found the Zion Gate, the secret gate that had been eluding me on my run! Tomorrow, I will be able to stay along the wall for the entire way around [you see how this has become somewhat of a quest for me!] It was a nice walk in that Quarter, which I found less-heavily populated by the hard-sell merchants that almost drag you inside their shops in the other Quarters. I want to say a few things about the Armenians here, just because I didn’t know very much about their story, and it is a sad one. According to “The Land and the Book,” which has been my go-to resource this whole trip [by Page & Volz], the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century CE, and Armenia prides itself on being the first country officially to accept the Christian faith in the very early 4th century. For this reason, the Armenians established themselves early on in Jerusalem. Quick, if pressed, could you find Armenia on a map right now? Don’t worry–I’ll help out! It is located just to the east of Turkey and just south of Georgia [and that tells some of the history right there: after WWI, it was invaded by both Turkey & Russia, and it was divided between them]. The real tragedy, though, is the genocide inflicted upon the Armenians by Turkey, beginning in the late 1890s. By the start of WWI, between 1.8 and 2 million Armenians had been killed, and thousands of others escaped to Jerusalem, which became something of an Armenian capital in exile. Today, the Armenian Quarter is made up primarily of refugees [and their descendants] who escaped from Turkey during that time. [Finally in 1991, Armenia won its independence from the then-USSR.] Just outside the Armenian Quarter, I stumbled onto the Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine monastery established in 1906. [Technically, it is located on Mount Zion–hence the “Zion Gate” that is there]. Anyway, this is not a big pilgrimage stop for Lutherans as you can imagine–according to tradition, it is built over the site of Mary’s tomb! However, my book also said that it is one of the most beautiful churches in Jerusalem [and the competition is high, right?], so I wanted to check it out. And, I did find it really beautiful–there is an extraordinary large, circular mosaic on the floor of main sanctuary, featuring the twelve disciples with different animals & figures–there were chairs set out on top of it, so I couldn’t get a picture. I’m going to try again tomorrow. And, downstairs in the crypt [where there is a sleeping Mary in the middle of the room!], there were some really beautiful side altars, each from a different country, and a rich, colorful larger-than-life size image of Guadalupe; and in the dome over Mary, beautiful mosaics of 6 strong women in the Bible: Eve, Miriam, Judith, Jael [I had to look that story up!], Ruth & Esther. I liked the idea of these strong women looking down/watching over Mary–ironically, at least to me, they emphasized her humanity, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the iconography, which focused on Mary as the queen of heaven, with a much smaller baby Jesus [I don’t want to say an afterthought, but definitely not the first thing your eyes go to…] resting on her lap. Then, I went back to the Jewish Quarter, and strolled around some more, looking at all the different synagogues, the different yeshivas [I even found one that was focused on Kabbalah–it had gorgeous, intricate doors] for students of all ages, and the different examples of “Judaica”–sacred objects that are art forms in and of themselves. I saw one place that had the most amazing mezuzahs–some that looked very contemporary, metallic and colorful–some square and some fully cylindrical; and some that were made out of carved pieces of wood. I also love to look at the menorahs–same thing: some are very modern, very abstract [I have read that the Bauhaus movement was very influential among Jewish artists]; and others are more traditional. All are beautiful. I wish Lutheranism embraced more fully the concept of beauty in the Divine, and afforded more opportunities to celebrate this beauty in our worship. Personally, I don’t think we do this very well–we’re more utilitarian; and, of course, our focus on the spoken, rather than the written word, doesn’t lend itself as well to that, either. All in all, another great day; and like always, I am feeling blessed to have a nice room to come back to–plenty of food, a warm bed, hot tea. I think about that often when I am home, too–all the people who spend all day out, walking around, going from place to place, looking for food, for heat, for rest, and then when night comes, still don’t have anywhere to retreat to, any safe place, any warm place. If any prayer belongs in the Western Wall, it’s a prayer for those ones.

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