Everything is holy

Posted on May 6, 2015

Israel invites strong emotions.  Both politically and personally.  This post is personal.

I have resisted going to Israel for years.  My family’s post-war history is one of avoidance and assimilation, our suffering undoubtedly a factor in my own reluctance to claim any particular cultural identity; except maybe as a New Yorker, and a citizen of planet earth.

And yes, I do understand it is a privilege to be able to make this choice.

Last month however, somewhat unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to visit Israel for the first time, and spent eight busy days racing from one end of the country to the other.  What I found was surprising.

It was good to finally see the place that my husband was born and spent his childhood.  It was lovely to feast on hummus and olives, and the beauty of the landscape, the buildings and the light. It was enlivening to ask questions and observe, and try to unravel the complexity of the culture, and the profound conflicts entrenched in its soil.

My early impressions in Jaffa and even Jerusalem were of a fertile spiritual reservoir from which visitors of many faiths were drinking deeply.  The diversity reminded me of my hometown, but the yearning seemed for more than fame and fortune.  I was touched and amazed at the passionate response of Christians to the place where Jesus is believed to have been resurrected, and of Muslims to the spot at which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven.  But soon it was made clear, and with varying degrees of civility, that I was not entirely welcome at either of these sites.

Fair enough.

Given the painful history and the conflicting claim to the land, how could I object?  But I couldn’t help wondering, not just about the sense of ownership of these sacred places, but the assignment of a rock, a building or a square of dirt as holy above, let’s say, the mountains, the sound of laughter, the sun on the mediterranean.  I looked around at the beautiful land and people and felt, maybe more than I ever have, that EVERYTHING is holy and we are all missing the point.

The biggest surprise though came at one of the last places we visited–the Western Wall — perhaps the most sacred site in Judaism, and a place that, just like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Dome of the Rock,  many believers wait their entire lives to visit.

Before my husband and I parted ways to walk to the sections reserved either for men or women, he reminded me to touch the ancient stone.  I recalled hearing that many Jews finally connect to their faith with this single act.  Cool. I was ready.

As I came into sight of the wall however I saw that the crowd was thick. There would be no way to get up front without considerable aggression and a determined letting go of my fear of crowds.  Toward the back of the courtyard I saw some of the younger women standing on chairs and looking over at the men’s side, even snapping pictures.  So, mostly wanting to catch a glimpse of my husband, I did the same.  What I saw on the other side shocked me:  The chairs were different (better?), the space was larger, there were shelves of prayer books for those that wanted them, and plenty of space at the wall itself to make contact if you chose to do so.

I felt my heart pounding with anger.   I can’t say I felt the oppression or exclusion that others have suffered because I was not actually being separated from anything to which I was passionately attached.  But still, I tasted the bitterness of discrimination…and right here in Israel at my very own people’s holiest site!  That night I began to read obsessively about the Women of the Wall, a group working to achieve the social and legal recognition of our rights as women to claim equal space at the wall; wear prayer shawls, and pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud, just as the men do.

The problem at the Western Wall seems no different than the problems throughout the country and of course everywhere.  As long as we stay with an attitude based on me and mine, we are fated to be separated from what we care about most deeply, and from any real possibility for peace.

Remember though–I said that this post is personal.

With that in mind I can only offer my own source of peace, and that has been the knowledge that everything and everyone is holy–both those I love, and those that are hard for me to love, all that is beautiful and everything that scares me, the call to prayer and the blowing of the shofar, the long journey home from the promised land to my city; another section of rock on the spinning world.



Jaffa sunset





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