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Shabbat Shalom

May 15, 2009


Friday, 11:58 pm local time


Now we’re on the other side.

Kefillit Yadidiah is a modern Orthodox synagogue about 20 minutes from the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, a 15 minute walk from where we’re staying here at St. Andrews. “Modern” Orthodox means that, although they seek to follow the laws of the Torah, they try to be more egalitarian than their ultra-Orthodox brethren. Women are separated from men by a screen down the middle of the synagogue, but it separates left and right rather than front and back; women are equidistant from the holy ark that holds the Torah and from the ‘pulpit’ from which most of the praying is done. Women give sermons and pray and sing, so as far as Orthodox synagogues go, this is pretty feminist, says our guide Debbie. Debbie is the president of the council on Jewish-Christian relations here in Jerusalem; we will be meeting with her more in depth later in the week.

Sitting in the synagogue was a fascinating experience. The entire Shabbat service is a continuous prayer, whether for the dead or to praise God or to lament through a Psalm, and what is not mumbled in the fastest voice you can muster is sung. Beautifully. Without music. When I was in Thailand, I had the experience of going to a Thai-English worship service conducted in both languages; the sermon was sentence in English-sentence in Thai, but the singing was Thai and English simultaneously. The cacophony of voices was more harmonious than it was distracting, and the singing-praying tonight was much the same. There seemed to be a basic melody for each part of the Shabbat service, but people improvised harmonies and yelled out additional words and created a symphony of sound in which I could lose myself.

After the service, we split into pairs and went with various families to their homes for Shabbat dinner. Kathy and I were immediately adopted by Natan, an 11 year old self-described ‘troublemaker’ with a British accent who grabbed my hand and didn’t let go (and didn’t stop talking) until we got back to his home. His brother Yishai (16), his sister Noah (14), and their parents Sharon and Martin delightfully awesome to be around. They welcomed us into their home without hesitation, provided books so that Kathy and I could follow along as they sang, and made way too much food. We spent at least three hours talking about everything from sites to see in Jerusalem to the popularity of President Obama to the difference between tornadoes and hurricanes.

Most interestingly, though, as Sharon and Martin were walking us back to St. Andrews afterward, I finally got up the courage to ask them the Palestinian question. Sharon’s response was telling as she looked at me sadly and said simply, “I was naive.” She voted for Ehud Barak in the 90s; she voted for the two-state solution, as did a majority of Israelis. And yet, the cafe a few blocks from her house was the site of a suicide bombing not too long after. She said this as we walked past a marble plaque memorializing the place where the #14 bus exploded in 2004, killing 8 Israelis. For Sharon, it’s as simple as safety. “Nobody likes the wall,” she said, “nobody likes what’s happening to the Palestinians on the other side. But the simple fact is, with all of the checkpoints and all of the fencing, we can know with a degree of certainty that things like this won’t happen again.”

For Martin, it’s a deeper ideological difference. “Nobody seems to realize that there are people whose whole goal is total domination of the land, total Palestinian domination of the land,” he said, implicitly asking, What will happen to us? Yishai mentioned during dinner that he wasn’t afraid to be serving in the army in two years’ time, and hadn’t really thought about it. As he said, “People have been protecting me all this time; it’s my turn.” If Sharon winced a bit at that, he didn’t seem to notice.

I want to put Sharon and Elias from Ibillin in a room together. To hear the conversation that would take place…I mean, neither of them is wrong, are they? Elias wants to be free, to have true freedom, to be recognized as a citizen and as a human who isn’t targeted for marginalization; Sharon wants to be free, to have true freedom, to be recognized as a citizen and as a human who isn’t targeted for destruction. They both want the same thing, but the anger in Elias’ voice, the utter sadness in Sharon’s, it makes me wonder: is it possible?

What does reconciliation look like? Surely it doesn’t mean Sharon having to put her children’s lives in danger, and surely it doesn’t mean Elias having to live a life that is less than it should be. Surely there’s a third way.


We are in Jerusalem for the next five days, and will be speaking with many more Israelis. My writing so far has been as through Palestinian eyes, but I am on the other side of the wall now, and I am hearing through Israeli ears. Would that I would be discerning enough to filter out the noise and hear the voice of God.

Shabbat shalom.

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