Monday, March 26, 2007

Israel: Good Shepherd

One interesting aspect of living in Jerusalem is that if you get around much in the Old City - downtown belt, you're guaranteed to meet a lunatic at least every couple of weeks. For example, when I was at the bus station for my trip to Galilee, I met a kippah-wearing guy who seemed to be striking up conversations so as to warn people about their worldly attachments. In my case, I was told that if the University of Windsor, the name of which was on my travel bag, meant anything to me, I would be consumed by flames, reduced to ash, and worse than ash, for I would be nothing more than the memory of ash. This morning at the place where I do laundry, there was a woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan who was writing a book. That much is fairly innocuous. Then, however, we got into the three visions by which God had revealed her purpose to her. I can't explain the details because I zoned out a bit, but the upshot of it was that her book was connected to the eventual building of a third temple and the conversion of the (Palestinian?) Arabs to Christianity as a result of all their suffering.

Most people here, however, are perfectly normal. And with that as a segue, let's talk about Purim. Purim is a holiday that usually falls shortly before the official first day of spring and commemorates the events of the Biblical Book of Esther, though one suspects that the book is there partly to legitimize an existing agricultural festival of some kind. It is, after all, grouped with the festival scrolls rather than the histories and its pretense at historicity is pretty thin. The story, common to all three major monotheistic traditions, is that after the Persian ruler Ahasuerus spurned Vashti for not letting him show her off before the court, he realized he needed a new wife. Mordecai submitted his ward Esther, who won the king's favor and became queen. Thereafter, Mordecai learned of a plot by a minister named Haman to have all the Jews killed, which was thwarted when Esther revealed her Jewish heritage. The king gave the Jews permission to defend themselves, and they killed all the people who were trying to kill them. Mordecai became the new minister, and everyone lived happily ever after.

The Jewish collective response to this story has often been appropriately summarized as, "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!" Purim is basically a big party. It seems to be a violation of Israeli law to have a celebration that is only one day long, so the events are actually stretched out for a week or so in advance of Purim. The actual day of Purim is the 14th of Adar, except in Jerusalem where it comes a day later, as centuries ago rabbis decided that the fact fighting went on for one day longer in Shushan meant that any city which had a wall during the Achaemenid period should celebrate it a day later. At least a week in advance, posters begin appearing advertising Purim parties, of which I'm told the the one with the Lubavicher Haredi is the best. These consist of a festive reading of Esther, followed by a festive meal and then a dutiful following of a commandment in the Talmud that at Purim, observant Jews should drink until they can no longer distinguish between the phrases "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai."

The downtown area where I live reminded me a lot of Madison's State Street on Halloween, the American holiday to which Purim is often compared. On Purim, everyone wears costumes, and you see an assortment much like that on an American Halloween, with a few culturally determined variations, such as the women and girls who just put on nice, white, vaguely Hellenistic/Persian combinations of garments and call themselves Esther. A high percentage of men dress in drag, which perhaps explains why the Haredi rabbis bother issuing rulings forbidding it all the time. There are also the usual superheroes, ninjas, period constumes, and movie characters. I guess what you don't have is the scary element. As you might guess, the wildness stays the same, however, with a thick layer of police trying to check the rowdier elements. Another important aspect of Purim is making noise. In synagogues, I'm told people just stamp their feet. Out on the street, people use firecrackers, and get added fun out of it by trying to throw them onto balconies and into crowds of suddenly startled people. During the day there are parades, though I only saw newspaper pictures of those, and the giving of food baskets to people. I also think it important to mention that the West Bank is completely sealed off except for medical emergencies, which means Palestinians undoubtedly hate Purim, getting locked inside their cantons.

Given the current political tensions, it is perhaps inevitable that there was plenty of talk about Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a new Haman, which I don't feel like going into. The standard religious interpretation, however, is that the series of coincidences through which the Jews are saved shows God's concern for his people, though a cynic might suggest it would have been easier to have just one coincidence eliminate Haman before the plot ever got underway. An especially zealous devotee of Robert Graves - assuming such people exist - might suggest the saving of the Jews constitutes a new life, making it a typical spring holiday, filled with themes of rebirth and renewal. If I might make another painfully obvious segue, another holiday which combines divine concern for humanity with rebirth and renewal is Easter which commemorates events right here in Jerusalem.

As you may remember from my e-mail "Foundations" where I talked about the ruins of the Davidic city, the Mount of Olives is a high ridge east of the hill where Jerusalem originally stood. In the Old Testament, one occasionally reads of people doing things on the "High Places" outside the city, usually worshipping idols. Scholars believe these are the high places in question. Back in September I wrote about some of the lower reaches, such as the alleged Tomb of Mary and probable Garden of Gethsemane with the olive trees some of which are over 2000 years old. I finally got around to visiting the top of it, though I didn't hike. I took a bus from the Arab bus station near the Old City's Damascus Gate, and rode down into the Kidron Valley and up through a pro-Hamas neighborhood on the Mount's north side, then around a couple of elementary schools where some teachers were standing around chatting while keeping an eye on young girls running around during what looked very much like a recess, until I got off by the Church of the Pater Noster.

The Mount of Olives sites all commemorate especially famous events, as in the narrative structure of the gospels they tended to be saved until near the end when Jesus was by Jerusalem. Thus, on the lower slopes of the mountain is the Arab village of al-Azariya, known in Roman times as Bethany, where lived Lazarus and Martha. I couldn't go there, as I ran into my friend the Israeli security barrier and didn't feel like looking for a way around it. The Church of the Pater Noster, Latin for "Our Father," is on the site where Jesus supposedly taught the Lord's Prayer, and is thus perhaps the ultimate Jesus-as-teacher site just as al-Azariya would be the pinnacle of Jesus-as-healer. The remains of an old Crusader-era church are still visible. The building today, however, is much more recent, Lonely Planet is failing to tell me when it was built. The walls are covered with tiles showing the Lord's Prayer in dozens of languages, from standard ones like French, Italian, and Japanese to some very obscure ones like Greenlandic, Cree, and a few I confess to never having heard of. Most of the less commonly spoken language panels had dates at the bottom, suggesting maybe that's when they were added.

The most important site on the Mount of Olives, though, is, of course, that of the Ascension. There are, however, three claimants. One was a Russian Orthodox church I didn't bother to go to, as the Russian Orthodox keep hours that would make a Saudi Arabian consulate proud. The most visible is the tall, somewhat dingy up close steeple of the Roman Catholic church, which I also wound up skipping because it was too hard trying to find the entrance. The place I did wind up visiting was not very imposing, being a smallish structure from the time of the Crusades. Across the street from a cafe/restaurant with great rooftop views of the Old City, I initially found it confusing. The sign outside said "Chapel of the Ascension" in several languages, but instead of a steeple, it had a minaret with a crescent moon and speakers for the call to prayer. Upon closer inspection, I saw a small cross above the entrance, and a sign with a Muslim profession I couldn't quite make out on a wall by the door.

After I'd made a couple of false starts trying to determine if I should wander in or not, a man inside beckoned to me. As I crossed the threshold passing an entrance to a chamber with prayer carpets and a standard mosque shoe storage cabinet, I heard and then saw a church group singing a hymn the main line of which was "He lives within my heart" with a slight southern accent. I asked the man if it was a church or a mosque. "Both!" he replied, "The only place in the world where both Christians and Muslims..." and he stopped looking briefly for a verb but gave up and just beamed. "Issa (Jesus), peace be upon him, brings us together." Jesus, of course, is recognized in Islam as a Prophet, though I didn't know Muslims had the Ascension, which I guess is the implication of having a Mosque of the Ascension. The actual prayer area of the mosque was the small room off to the side of the entrance, while the chapel was a small building in the courtyard where the church group was singing. Inside the chapel was a depressed piece of rock in which was preserved the alleged footprint of Jesus before the Ascension. Next to it was a flat space with a niche in the wall facing Mecca for Muslim prayers, while directly in front were red flowers and a place for the lighting of Christian prayer candles.

In the world today, finding such a place was remarkable, almost like a dream. Especially in areas that aren't very multicultural, there's so much focus on differences, and the whole idea of interfaith dialogue sounds like a fringe liberal hobby. Yet here at this place, just across the valley from a place where six weeks ago there were riots involving control over another holy site, two of the monotheistic religious had been brought together by faith and perhaps that very same dream. After all, much of what we look for in religion is our dreams, of being saved from oppression and genocidal intent, of a friend in the darkest of nights, of hope for the future, and many of the holidays we commemorate represent our memories or visions of the far side of that hope and our expression of faith that we might yet see it. And perhaps, too, atop the Mount of Olives, God has left us with a signpost, like a good shepherd who protects, saves, and guides, leaving the path to salvation written within our own familiar world.



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