A Tale of Two Cities

“In Israel, waves of anger and fear circulate all the time, but so do jokes and gossip and silky evening breezes.” ~P.J. O’Rourke

When you revisit a city, your luggage packed full of memories, you quickly sense a difference. Even if the landscape, population and political climate have remained untouched, you, the observer, have changed.

Temple steps

This summer, I had the opportunity to return to Israel to help lead a group of students from Southern Methodist University. I wanted them to experience what I had the year before – the cosmopolitan, yet celestial beauty of Jerusalem, the delightful surprises of the Old City marketplace and above all, local interactions.

But this year, things were different. A week before we arrived in the Holy Land, three Jewish police officers were shot on the Temple Mount. As a result, Israeli security forces set up metal detectors on the site — a move which further inflamed tensions. By the time my group arrived in Jerusalem, Palestinian authorities had planned a “day of rage” for Friday afternoon.

shabbat shalom

At first, I didn’t fully grasp the import of what this meant. I knew we had to shift our itinerary somewhat to avoid the dangers associated with the riots, but it never occurred to me that Jerusalem’s Old City would be completely off limits.

That very afternoon, I’d been texting Ibrahim, the Palestinian Muslim I befriended last year, on Shabbat. What a different day that was. My friends and I had wandered the marketplace, taking in the sites and smells, before meeting the soft-spoken jeweler who welcomed us into his shop, served us tea and met us for dinner the following day.

This year, I had resolved to reconnect with Ibrahim. I was eager to hear his opinions about the recent violence in Jerusalem, but more than that, to introduce him to some of my students. Several had expressed interest in purchasing jewelry and I was thrilled to personally introduce them to my friend.

But after multiple attempts to set up a meeting, I learned from my superiors that, because of safety concerns, our group was not permitted to venture into the marketplace.

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Ibrahim understood, but this news nevertheless broke my heart. I wanted my students to experience the joy of meeting this man who had opened my eyes to new perspectives and blessed my soul with his pure human kindness.

Although this particular meeting was not to be, the Lord had another special interaction in mind.

As my group crested a steep hill at midday, after a long morning of touring, a kind Arab man stopped our guide Einav and offered to provide all thirty-five of us with ice-cold water. His family members brought over several tall bottles and a stack of cups, and my students downed the drinks with immense gratitude.

The water break

Einav expresses his thanks to the Palestinian family.

Although there was a language barrier, Einav knew enough to translate, and told our group that the man’s daughter was getting married that very afternoon. We all smiled and cheered congratulations, as Einav taught everyone “thank you” in Arabic. My students’ halting murmurs of “shukraan” reminded me of when I first uttered the term – while drinking tea with Ibrahim.

Although the afternoon’s turn of events was not ideal, I was so thankful that my group could witness the beauty of a peaceful, genuine interaction between a generous Muslim stranger, a Jewish guide and a group of Christian youth. Although the tension in Israel is much more complicated than any of us could imagine, such beautiful moments carry with them inexplicable hope.

It was a sober day, but even amidst the seriousness, unfettered joy broke loose. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Western Wall. At this holy site where tears are shed and wails are uttered, singing and dancing cannot be kept at bay. Worship covers the whole range of human emotion.

dancing 3

After an hour of reflection and prayer at the Wall, Einav gathered us all in a circle, and we began to dance hilariously. We moved as one body, lacking grace, but not unity. Jewish youths joined in with smiles and we spun and hummed and bumped into each other like one diverse, messy, happy family.

It was a necessary release. If only the world could spin that way.

From there, we walked to the home of a young Jewish couple who hosted us for Shabbat dinner. Leah and Avi were incredibly gracious and kind. As thirty-five of us sat on their breezy balcony festooned with sparkling lights, the newlyweds explained the nature of Shabbat. Leah talked of mindfulness, of cultivating joy in the moments of life. She spoke of the goal of creating nothing new, of using what you already have.

Avi’s description of the weekly holy day blew me away with its beauty. There are two Jerusalems, he said. The celestial city – the city of God, of light, of perfection. The city that the Jews dream of and aspire to. And there is the earthly city – the city of man, of stone, of pain and pleasure. The here and the now.

jerusalem-view

On Shabbat, those two cities meet halfway. The cares of the earthly city are left behind, and the stars of the celestial city sparkle that much closer to the horizon. The pain of political tension fades, and ethereal moments of human kindness shine forth.

As if this were not enough to meditate upon, Avi and Leah announced their tradition for dinner parties: WOW moments. The couple invited our group members to share thoughts or insights at any time by clinking on a water glass, rising and speaking a word of wisdom (WOW).

“There in that moment, in the midst of a city gripped by tension and fear, I felt joy unspeakable.”

As the night wore on, amidst multiple courses of fabulous food and plentiful conversation, there were clinks aplenty. I was blown away. My students expressed beautiful, profound thoughts – many of them inspired by moments on the trip. They shared personal anecdotes of the power of connection, of making a lasting impact, of trusting the Lord. Our Jewish guard even got up to communicate how touched he was by the seriousness with which we approached our faith.

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My WOW moment was a rather inarticulate, stuttered exclamation of gratitude. There in that moment, in the midst of a city gripped by tension and fear, I felt joy unspeakable. Delight that our experiences in the Holy Land had so moved the students. Awe at their wisdom. Thankfulness that so many young people could make the pilgrimage that countless octogenarians have only dreamed of.

I understood then what Avi had meant. On Shabbat, heaven and earth meet. All is calm, all is bright. Shabbat Shalom becomes not a hope, but a reality.

wailing wall

There aren’t any pictures from that magical dinner. Cameras aren’t permitted after sundown on Shabbat. After all, it’s hard to be mindful of the moment when you’re behind a screen.

And then it struck me: I don’t have physical memories from many of the most precious moments in my life. Often, those moments catch us off guard. Many cannot even be encapsulated in a photograph. Instead, we have to tuck them away into the recesses of our hearts. Like the prayers shoved into the bricks of the Western Wall, we fold up those memories, kiss them and push them into the cracks.

I pray for peace in Jerusalem. I don’t know what the next year holds, but I know who holds it. And He wishes Shalom – human flourishing – for all.

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