Thursday, August 7, 2008

Holy Site Surprise

Last week I returned to Jerusalem for one last visit before I leave Israel. My family and I took a tour of the tunnels that lie under the Western Wall. During this fascinating tour, the guide explained how the retaining walls of the Temple Mount were built (all of the building that took place under Herod’s reign here is so impressive that I have to keep reminding myself that according to my Christian upbringing that “respect” is not something I’m supposed to be feeling toward Herod), how they withstood Roman attempts to demolish them during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and why the Western Wall is holy to Jews.

I did not know this would happen before I took the tour, but the tour passed by the “holy of holies,” the part of the wall that is believed to be the inner sanctum of the Second Temple and is the most sacred site in Judaism. The tour guide stopped the tour for a moment so that participants could take a moment to pray there if they so wished. And what do you know? In contrast to the Western Wall, access to the holy of holies is not segregated! It is accessible to everyone equally -- no separate sections for men and women! Everyone who comes can be present to pray to or think about God -- together!

My family and I jumped at the chance. All together, we put our heads against the Wall. The boys put their hands on the Wall; my husband and I put our hands on the boys. We enjoyed a peaceful moment together, as a family. After the frustration of being separated from my family during our earlier visit to the Wall (see “Up Against the Wall,” July 11 post) this visit, which took place with the three people who matter most to me, was meaningful. My eyes filled. When we turned away from the Wall, a few tears spilled onto my cheeks. As I wiped them away, some people looked at me, perhaps assuming that visiting the “holiest of holies” was so important to me that it moved me to tears. (Funny, I could almost hear them think, she doesn’t look Jewish). But of course what really mattered was that I was finally able to experience the Western Wall with my family.

Afterward I was so content that I could almost forgive the orthodox rabbis for segregating women and men at the Wall. I could almost forget that they give men at least twice the space at the Wall that they allocate to women. I could almost absolve them of giving the men wide wooden desks near the wall at which to spread out and study Torah, while the women get narrow little desks that provide barely enough space on which to spread a cheap paperback novel. I could do all this -- almost.

As long as my holy site ship appeared to be in, I made one last attempt to visit the Dome of the Rock. Over the course of the summer, I’ve tried every possible way to get in: persuasion, money, connections. None if it worked. The guard at the door last week barely even looked at us non-Muslims begging for entry. “After seven years?” he asked rhetorically. “Not now.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

OMG! Maybe I'm really Baha'i!

Why visit only the holy places of the world’s three major monotheistic religions? I had the chance recently to get to know one of the minor monotheistic groups a bit better as well by visiting the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. Somewhat incongruously, given Israel’s identification as a Jewish state, Haifa and Akko, both on Israel’s uppermost northern coast, serve as the world center of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’i have a shrine in Haifa to one of their prophets; the remains of its other prophet are buried in Akko. The Haifa shrine is surrounded by a kilometerlong garden, which is made up of eighteen terraces running straight up the side of Mount Carmel, the mountain on which Haifa is built.

I knew little of the Baha’i before going, so I found the Baha’i’s central principles on the web. Here they are:

-- Abandonment of prejudice
-- Full equality between the sexes
-- Recognition of the oneness and commonality of the world’s religions
-- Elimination of extreme poverty and wealth
-- Universal compulsory education
-- The responsibility of the individual to search independently for truth
-- Establishing a world federal system
-- Recognizing that faith and reason should be in harmony.

Hey! That sounds just like what I believe! Individuality, fairness, thoughtfulness, equity – those are my values too! (Well, to be fair, I’ve never really considered the idea of a world federal system, but I am for government-run universal health care, which would be a start, wouldn’t it?) And to top it off, there are no churches, synagogues, or mosques, and the Baha’i administrative structure is very limited. That all works out great, because I don’t deal well with bureaucracy and I’ve always hated going to church. Plus, the Baha’i have gardens. And I like to garden! This was starting to sound like a good match.

(Great, my husband responded when I shared the revelation that I may, at root, be Baha’i. You’ve managed to find the only religion on earth whose members have been persecuted almost as much as the Jews.)

But back to my trip to the Baha’i Gardens. I tried to get into the shrine, which is supposed to be stunning, but was turned away. (This was disappointing, especially since I was still residing in the mental penumbra of my failed Dome of the Rock visit. How many more religions, I wondered, will reject my attempts to honor their holy sites before I leave Israel?)

So I took the garden tour instead. These gardens were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Everything in them is exactly symmetrical and perfectly ordered. Red geraniums, orange marigolds, purple petunias, flowering cactuses, and white stone – every one impeccable, and offset by the greenest possible grass. They are also the most manicured gardens I have ever visited. There was not so much as a single blade of grass out of place. Even in the midday heat, I saw at least 20 people tending the gardens, a task that must take place around the clock. I got the sense that it must be one person’s job to stand near the bushes to catch any errant leaf that shows the temerity to fall – the gardens are that perfect. One of the jobs of the missionaries who come to Haifa, my non-Baha’i tour guide tells me, is to wash by hand the hundreds of lights that run the length of the gardens. (It’s hard for me to believe that that is true, but the gardens are so perfect that the claim is at least plausible.)

There’s a fastidiousness about it all that seems at odds with my understanding of the Baha’i. They prize individuality of thought, yet the central showcase of their religion is managed in such an uptight manner? Not only are the gardens themselves impeccable, access to them is controlled carefully. The shrine itself is open very few hours of the day. And more than one guard stands at each gate to the shrine and its gardens, making sure that those who enter are wearing respectful clothing. No visible knees, shoulders, or anything remotely suggesting cleavage are permitted in the garden or shrine, which are for the Baha’i a holy place. Both men and women are asked to employ the top buttons on their shirts, and women with shirts that show even the area just below their necks seemed to wind up wearing shawls. I respect the need to maintain dignity at a holy place, but it strikes me that the Baha’i are much more fastidious about their holy place than other faiths have been about theirs when I’ve visited them here in Israel.

There is definitely more for me to understand about this religion, about which I currently know so little. Its values – the emphasis on commonality, oneness, reason, and individual thought – sound so appealing. Yet the little bit of its world center to which I gain access could come across as the world’s single most visible monument to obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what to make of it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


If there is one thing that clearly defines me as an American when I travel abroad, it is this: I like my space.

I don’t mean that I need to travel through wide, open panoramas, or cavernous, echoing canyons. Purple mountain majesty and amber waves of grain are all nice and well, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean that wherever it is that I happen to me, I like for there to be a small, invisible cushion of space around me where other people are not. That’s all, just a little space between me and the next person. Especially if that person is a stranger.

I know that this preference is not shared by people in many other places in the world. But knowing that this value is not shared and living the value difference are two entirely different things.

So it bothers me here in Israel when, as I prepare to bag my groceries, a woman steps in front of me, grabs a plastic bag, and starts shoving her potatoes in. Technically, we could both do it at the same time, but it’s a pretty tight squeeze. Or when, as I wait in one of twenty chairs in the near-deserted post office, someone walks in and sits down in the chair right next to me. Or when, as I sit on a blanket on the grass in a park, a person getting ready to leave the park walks right along the edge of my blanket, instead of arcing around the blanket to avoid me, as most Americans would.

An example: I was recently enjoying a late afternoon beach excursion with the kids. The beach was pretty empty. So I was able to plunk us down in one of the few shaded places on the beach. Perfect. The kids and I could play in the waves, then stretch out on our towels without the bother of the sun glaring in our eyes.

And that is just what we did for a half hour or so, when out of the corner of my eye I spied a man standing nearby, beach towel draped over his arm. He was eyeing the three shaded spaces on the beach, trying to decide where to sit. The kids and I occupied one of those spaces. A couple lounged in the second space. The third was empty.

A sudden sense of impending doom came over me. What if this guy came to sit right in our space? How could I relax at the beach with this guy right next to us? How would I comfortably read, shake the sand out of my suit, write in my journal, or discipline my children, with someone else sitting there too?

I looked around in fear. Then I decided to deploy the only weapon at my disposal: my children.

“Kids,” I whispered. “Can you start, like, yelling or something?”

“Huh?” The boys looked up at me from their sand digging, surprised.

“Shout. Yell.”

“What are you talking about, Mom?”

“Make some noise,” I told them under my breath. “Loud, obnoxious noise.”

Their lips curled up in amused surprise. Was their mother actually asking them to misbehave?
“Uh, why?” one asked.

“Because I told you to, that’s why.”

The boys looked at each other, then raised their voices halfheartedly to call out a few nonsense words. The man with the beach towel scrutinized us. I started to get a bad feeling. This was not going well.

“Louder!” I told the boys. They stared at me. Apparently my kids, so adept at disobedience, cannot misbehave on command.

Beach towel man began his approach.

“OK, kids. I’m serious. Start throwing sand!”

“What?!” the boys jaws dropped, stunned, as though I’d just asked them to dismember each other.

“Throw some sand,” I hissed. This was frustrating. Many afternoons at the beach they have sand fights so fierce that they create a virtual sandstorm. At some points the sand has been so thick in the air that the beach has looked like a scene from the bad 1980's movie Dune. But now that I needed them, the boys were just sitting there passively, like a pair of altar boys in church on Sunday.

My younger son limply tossed a handful of sand in the air, then watched it land next to him. He looked up at me.

“Not good enough.” I coached under my breath. “Don’t just toss it. Throw it. Really throw it. Come on, you can do it.”

He stared at me again. Then, finally, he lifted his arm. “Ready! Aim! Fire!” he yelled. Sand flew everywhere.

“Good one!” I said with glee.

Too late. Mr. Beach Towel was already preparing to land in the square of shade with us. I dropped back on my towel, closed my eyes, and tried to pretend that he was not there.

Monday, July 28, 2008


At midday, Petra’s landscape is stunning. Even if there were not a lost ancient city built into its mountains, you would still go to see it. You would go simply to experience the geology of it. You would go to climb its red hills, gaze out over Jordan from its rocky cliffs and run your hands along its smooth, rounded rocks, worn away by wind over thousands of years. You would go to watch the shape and color and shadow of the rocks morph with the changing light at different times of day.

But Petra is more than just geology. Its intricate façades of temples that combine elements of Roman, Greek and Egyptian architecture are carved into the crimson mountain. They make what would otherwise be merely one of the most breathtaking experiences of one’s life one of the most curious as well: how exactly did the Nabateans carve these buildings into the rock? The facades nearly put more well-known classical structures to shame. The Parthenon once impressed me. But it’s just a freestanding structure built from stone. Petra’s temples are somehow carved right into the sides of mountains. I may never be awed by a Corinthian column in Europe again now that I’ve seen one that is just as ornate, symmetrical and delicate scraped out of the side of a cliff.

Yet once you step inside the temples you find yourself in a simple, hollowed-out cave: O Potemkin temple. The Nabateans built these impressive structures at Petra as places to worship their gods. The contrast between the exteriors and interiors of the temples and tombs is puzzling. Did the Nabateans think that their gods only cared about the facades of the buildings? Was the central tenet of their religion that it’s what’s outside, not what’s inside, that counts? Or is the startling contrast between an elaborately carved façade and the cave it fronts simply an acknowledgement of the limits of engineering? My understanding of the Nabateans is so embarrassingly small that I cannot begin to answer these questions.

If Petra by day amazes, Petra by night enchants. Candles in simple luminarias light the path through the siq, the gorge that is the primary entrance to the city. My young son clings to my hand as we walk through the night. We imagine that we are a mother and son walking the same moonlit path thousands of years ago. The moon reflects off of the sides of the gorge, illuminating the siq to transform it once again. Its beauty makes the elaborate Nabatean temples seem unnecessary. Surely if divinity is present anywhere, it must be here in the reflection of moonlight on mountains.

Friday, July 25, 2008

All in All, it's Just Another Prayer in the Wall

My kids gave me permission to share the four prayers that they left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (in accordance with Jewish tradition, they stuck them in the Wall). They are:

  • “Homes for everyone”
  • “All peas”
  • “No illegal fishing”
  • “Make grandma better.”

So to translate, they prayed to end homelessness, achieve world peace, preserve marine life and help a sick family member. I doubt that many adults’ Wall prayers have been more thoughtful. (Although to be fair, a modest degree of parental intervention was exercised to discourage “Make the Georgetown Hoyas the 2009 NCAA Champions!” from being added to the list.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My Dome Dream, Denied

Personally, I blame Kierkegaard.

He’s the one responsible for my little obsession with the Dome of the Rock.

The background: I’ve never been a very religious person. But my religious skepticism was at a high point in college. At that point, I’d gone through all the motions of a kid’s traditional Catholic religious education and determined the moment that I was confirmed at the ripe age of 13 that I had had enough. I went on to spend part of high school reading Tolstoy’s essays trashing organized religion, which had somehow found their way into my ignorant hands (not to mention a mind so limited that it enabled me to conveniently overlook Tolstoy’s broader point that Christian spirituality is the goal of an individual’s existence). Bottom line: like most teenagers, I thought I knew a lot, but in reality knew little.

Then in college I signed up for a class on the Philosophy of Religion, for reasons having mostly to do with the reputation of the professor. The class was totally different from anything I’d taken before. Up until then, I had thrived on the hyperlogical parsing of my philosophy classes (Metaphysics: “If you eat a bowl of Corn Flakes in the morning, are you the same person you were when you got out of bed an hour earlier? OK, now what if you eat a bowl of Corn Flakes, then cut your toenails? Are you still the same person?”) and hyperanalytic examination of English lit (how many different possible meanings can the presence of a snake in a poem have?)

But Philosophy of Religion was about the big, sweeping thinkers, people who were intensely involved in explaining matters of the soul and the meaning of life: Buber, Bertrand Russell, etc. And so I came to read “Fear and Trembling,” Soren Kierkegaard’s essay on faith, told through the story of Abraham and Isaac. (Briefly, God asks Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham, without questioning God’s directive, thoroughly prepares to do the awful deed. At the last second, God stays Abraham’s knife, sparing Isaac.)

Kierkegaard’s interpretation of this story is gripping. He describes the story as the ultimate expression of faith in God. God asks Abraham to make a terrible sacrifice, to commit an unthinkable act. Abraham submits to God’s will because his faith in God is complete. He is prepared to give God whatever he asks, no matter how dear. Kierkegaard retells the story to repudiate people who rely excessively on reason, dismissing passion out of hand. People like me.

Frankly, the whole thing shook me up a bit. Here was Kierkegaard, illustrating the beauty and intelligence of faith with one of the most compelling stories of the Old Testament. The story did not turn me into a believer (nor did it transform Kierkegaard, who criticizes himself for not sharing Abraham’s faith), but it did give me newfound respect for the faithful. And it seared the story of Abraham and Issac into my mind, where it has remained for the past 20 years. I could never have made the choice that Abraham did, to sacrifice my own child because God asked me to. But like Kierkegaard, my own lack of faith only increased my awe of Abraham.

So all this made the Dome of the Rock my must-see site in Israel this summer. The Dome is the Muslim shrine on Temple Mount in Jerusalem that contains the rock that Muslims, Jews and Christians all believe to be the site on which Abraham prepared to slay his son (though important elements of the Muslim version differ from the version accepted by Jews and Christians). Muslims also believe the rock to be the site on which Mohammad took his famous “night journey,” traveling from Arabia to Jerusalem before glimpsing heaven. I’d initially read that access to the Dome had been closed to non-Muslims, but heard through the tourist grapevine that the restrictions had been lifted: if I went early in the day, I would get in along with the other non-Muslims.

So I awakened my family early one Sunday morning, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out. As we walked, my feet began to feel quick and light. I was, I realized, excited – and just not everyday excited. It was the kind of excitement I usually reserve for things that are for me important spiritual moments, like seeing U2 in concert. I started to walk more quickly, navigating the Old City and then the security surrounding the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

We reached the Temple Mount and stood looking at the outside of the Dome of the Rock. The shrine’s exterior was spectacular. Its golden dome gleamed in the early morning light. The colors of the sides of the shrine – topaz blue, emerald green, deep shades of red – boldly declared themselves against the pale Jerusalem stone that makes up most of the rest of the Temple Mount. White Arabic writing proclaiming the supremacy of Islam encircled the shrine in a bright blue border.

I circumnavigated the Dome, looking for an open entrance. I found it, and it was guarded by several men dressed in plain clothes. No one was going in or out of the building: a bad sign. Surely, if they were allowing non-Muslims in, people would be lined up for blocks.

“Can I go in?” I asked one of the Arab men standing there, hoping that he spoke English.

“No. Closed,” he responded, turning away.

“Will it be open later?” I asked optimistically, certain that I must have just gotten the timing wrong and missed the Dome’s few open hours. I’d just have to come back later, or another day.

“No,” he turned back to look at me. “Always closed.”

But I came all this way! I wanted to say. All this way, to think about Abraham, and God, and faith. How can you not let me in? Don’t we all share this site – Muslims, Jews, Christians? Isn’t this the one place we should all be able to come and experience God in our own way? The place we can acknowledge an element our religions share in common, instead of arguing about those that divide us?

But I didn’t say anything. It would be futile. And, mindful of Temple Mount’s history --not to mention the presence of a number of armed men hovering nearby -- I didn’t want to make a scene. Instead, I walked around the building again. For a moment, I seemed to be in luck: a door at the back was propped open, and some European tourists had stuck their heads and cameras in and were clicking furiously. I stood behind them for a moment, and when they cleared out and I approached the door. Suddenly, the same man who told me that the Dome would always be closed appeared from the darkness inside and shut the door in my face.

Undaunted, I found a window on the side of the shrine and pressed my face against its metal screen, squinting to see inside. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness, and I scanned the room to make out the image of the rock. But all I saw through the dim light was scaffolding. There was construction going on, and sheets seemed to be hung from the scaffolds, blocking any view of the rock.

I pulled back from the window. Another woman was standing next to me, also American. I worried that she thought I was crazy for pressing myself against the window. All the other tourists were quietly wandering around the perimeter of the larger Temple Mount, apparently content to regard the Dome from a distance. So I told her how I’d always wanted to see the Dome, and that it was the one place in Jerusalem that I most wanted to see.

“I get that,” she said. She paused.

“There’s something about it,” she said, putting her hand to the window. “Just being in its presence you feel something, like it’s got some kind of power.”

For a moment, I looked at her like she was the crazy one.

Then it hit me: She was right. I actually did feel something there. Something deep, and powerful. Something that, crazy as it sounds, seemed to be coming from the rock inside.

I looked around. There was something about the whole Temple Mount area that was, well, serene. Peaceful. The kind of place that even I might want to come to think about God.

I nodded at the woman, and walked around the building again. I tried another window, peering in but seeing little. I gave up, and tried to satisfy myself with walking around the Temple Mount, looking out over the olive trees and thinking about all the people of different faiths who had come here over centuries to be with God.

Slowly, I turned back to the Dome and prepared to leave. My husband and kids had endured my obsession long enough, waiting patiently in what little shade Temple Mount offers. But suddenly I saw that the Dome’s door was open again. A man was carrying in carpets piled on his shoulders. He propped the door open and came out again, lifting wood that sat outside the door. As he prepared to carry it in, I quietly approached the open door. I stopped about three feet away from the threshold and stared in to the darkness. The man with the wood examined me suspiciously, then went inside.

A second later, a man in a blue uniform and more than one gun came to the door and looked at me. Even by Israeli standards, he was packing some serious heat. Had he been sent to intimidate me? If so, it worked: I’m not brave.

The man looked tough. But he looked me in the eye and said “No entrance” gently, in a way that seemed to tell me that it was OK to stay where I was and look in. He left the door open.

I scrutinized the darkness beyond the doorway for a minute. But it was no use. The scaffolding, the sheets, and the darkness kept me from getting any view of the rock. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to recapture the feeling I had had earlier by the window, the feeling of power and connection. It was gone.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My favorite Hebrew word (of those in my limited vocabulary)

Melafafon. Isn’t that pretty? It sounds like “mellifluous,” one of my favorite English words. But“mellifluous” is almost onomatopoetic – the word sounds like what it is meant to convey. “Melafafon” is Hebrew for cucumber.

My least favorite Hebrew word? It’s hard to choose just one. It might be “shta’im,” which means “two.” There are many Hebrew words that aren’t exactly music to my ears. This must be both because Hebrew sounds so different from English because my limited exposure to Hebrew hinders a fuller appreciation of the language. What sounds good to you depends on what you are accustomed to hearing: Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel laureate Russian poet, said that when he first heard English spoken it sounded like a dog barking.