Monday, January 22, 2018

Visit to Jerusalem

This excerpt is from the memoir Flowers in the Wind which describes the ten years I lived communally. The group broke up while we were in Israel. The experience of living there was so extraordinary that it deserves its own separate telling. Orginally written as memoir, revising it into a novel gave it wings. The novel Catch a Dream is slated for spring publication.

Ben Oren was convinced that a nuclear war was about to start, with Jerusalem as a target. He interpreted the Scripture in Matthew: “When you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that makes desolate’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” to mean that we should go see the Dome of the Rock and then flee to Egypt as soon as possible. I am not sure why he thought the fall-out wouldn't land there. I suppose he thought Africa was our “safe” Third World country.

The Intifada, the Uprising of the Palestinian people, did not sputter out but flared up over and over and gained momentum, with strikes and demonstrations in the West Bank, Gaza, and  Jerusalem. Jerusalem was particularly dependent on tourism and even though it meant Palestinian families suffered from the decision of the community organizers to enforce closure of their businesses, it became apparent that many felt they had nothing left to lose. Daily incidents of violence became common. Demonstrations were followed by tear gas, rubber bullets fired by Israeli soldiers and massive arrests. I had visited Jerusalem three times at this point. Jerusalem the Golden was an accurate description—at certain times under a pure sky the very stones were golden and luminescent. The modern culture overlaying ancient history was intoxicating and intriguing. In one afternoon you could walk the Roman pavings where Jesus walked and have espresso in a gleaming modern café. You could bargain for sandals or ceramic mementoes and pray at the garden tomb where Jesus had resurrected. And the fantastic mix of  people:  shopkeepers, scholars, Hasids in their tall black hats, Arab vendors, falafel stand owners, young Israeli women in tight skirts, Palestinian women in scarves, pilgrims from all over the world, Coptic monks carrying books,  Catholic priests leading processions, tour guides with clusters of tourists  marching by. But the vibrancy of this ancient contemporary city was crushed by the tension in the air, the Wall surrounded by jeeps, the presence of soldiers in every street, the shuttered shops when a strike was called, the possibility of a suicide bomb a very real threat. But dutifully I made my last pilgrimage, to see the Dome of the Rock and to say good-bye. This trip was a culmination in a series of steps that barely made sense but I lived in a state of altered reality. Apocalyptic prophesies coming true; landing in the country of my dreams only to be engaged in the constant struggle to provide the basic necessities—all this kept me from articulating my questions. What are we doing here? We always provided for others, now we seem to be nomads drifting from place to place. Are we facing the Apocalypse? Is this the End? Didn’t Ben Oren say we should be far away from the epicenter of nuclear war, which seems to be under our feet? 

Had I just given up? Had group-think strangled my rational mind? Unbelievably, I still trusted Ben Oren at this point, even though it was becoming more and more obvious that he had not a clue of how to truly bring about healing and harmony. 

In Jerusalem frozen rain turned into snow flurries. The longing for brotherhood and peace that shone from our eyes connected us with the hearts of those who took us in. Conversations were emphatic, volatile, bold, and political. They led to conclude that Jew, Arab, Christian, each envisioned a different peace. The Israelis wanted peace so that they could continue forward in their imitation of a materialistic America. The Palestinians wanted the recovery of the land taken from them. It was not permitted for lands previously Moslem to be usurped by the infidel. At least, this was how I interpreted the PLO Covenant, a text that made it clear that all Jews were to be cast into the sea. The Bedouins wanted the freedom to continue their nomadic lifestyle. The Christians wanted the freedom to control the holy places, which they had divided and fought over. But I believed these were simply political foibles that would fall away if individuals listened to each other's hearts, the heart that cries out for true peace. We brought a message of the Messiah's return, of Divine Justice. We reflected the desire to act as brothers rather than seek vengeance as enemies.
I had bought a journal to record my impressions, to write down my thoughts for the first time in ten years. The experience of being in Israel was too intense, too complicated, too powerful, not to try to make sense of what I was witnessing.

The Dome of the Rock, gorgeous in its structure and calligraphic décor, was supposedly where Abraham almost slew Isaac in his utter devotion to God’s command and where human sacrifice came to an end as a form of worship. I wrote in my journal: Held to a Fire eternally sacrificing children, promised to a freedom never found and always sought for, seared by memory, loss, and grief too deep to understand, chosen to a destiny of knowing the separation and in love and pain mending the irreconcilable: God and man's contest of wills--these children of an inheritance forged in a blaze that consumes the world.   I walked through a cauldron of seething emotions and aspirations, alert to possible danger from Arab boys throwing rocks and Israelis soldiers responding with tear gas, bullets, and arrests.    

I traveled to “witness” the “abomination”, the Dome of the Rock, with Ricardo, of Spanish-English descent. He had started to live with us in Isleta. A gentle, sweet, serious brother. The sun and wind browned his skin and made wrinkles around his blue eyes. I liked his eyes and his British lilt. At some point, Ben Oren had simply said, “How can you guys stand being celibate?” and we had stopped. Ricardo was easy to talk to and snuggle against. When Carin and I traveled together in Israel, we were usually flirted with or propositioned. Harmless Israeli attempts that could be responded to with directness. Traveling with Ricardo was liberating. A fresh start with someone who didn't know me from years of mistakes pointed out, whispered gossip, witnessed frustrations. To do the work I believed in—spreading the “Good News.” Sometimes we cooked a meal for people who were busy, we cleaned the bathrooms of the hostel where we stayed, we performed simple tasks to make things nicer. Extending ourselves as guests and as servants. We worked flawlessly as a team, always mindful of our mission: to practice peace and then to leave. Jerusalem was poised for yet another war and wept frozen tear-drops. We fled, touching the place she had marked in our hearts one last time.

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