Other Voices, Other Paths: Israel Travels
It is liberating to wear my cassock and vest and skufia (hat), the street garb of an Orthodox priest, in the old city of Jerusalem. I have a sense of identity, on one hand, but also a sense of the erasure of identity into a larger group, on the other. I possess a clear identification: Orthodox, Christian, and priest. But I also feel oddly anonymous, simply part of a group of people recognizable by their attire. In the old city everyone wears their “uniforms,” so to speak, and there’s an ease and relaxation that comes with that.
We hear so much about strife in Israel in America that we tend to forget that Israel remains the crossing point for cultures and kingdoms and empires in the near east, and has been since time immemorial. Ever since the Sumerian Empire, the first one for which we have written records, this narrow strip of land running north-south between mountains and the Mediterranean has seen the feet, the sandals, the shoes, and the boots of trampling warriors, tradesmen, and pilgrims going both ways between modern Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria to the north and Egypt and all of Africa to the south. My experience in uniform is a reminder of this long history and cross-cultural milieu.
One of the things you notice about Jerusalem as a whole is the observance of the Sabbath. This is true of the rest of the country, but especially noticeable in a large urban area. On Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, you notice a dramatically sizable decrease in traffic and business. From the onset of the Sabbath, about 4:15 PM in this month of the year, the city shuts down. The streets get very quiet. In a hotel only one elevator works and you have to wait for it, since it works automatically. You cannot exchange money or make telephone calls or use the Internet during the 24-hour period of Sabbath. So the impact is very high indeed, especially on those who spend much time in techno culture. However, when I sit in the café at the hotel on Sunday afternoon – the day of Christian observance – it’s as if there is no change from a normal day. This is a concrete reminder that there are only about 1 – 1.5% Christians of ALL kinds (but predominantly Orthodox and Roman Catholic) in Israel.
I love to spend the Sabbath with friends in Jerusalem. For readers with little or no acquaintance with Jewish folks, Sabbath is a very special time. It really marks a time out of time, a little touch of eternity in the midst of ordinary time. When the Sabbath candles are lit, time changes from the clock to the eternal. This is not magic but intentionality. The saying is true: “the Jews didn’t keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews.” In the midst of the continuing dissolution of Christianity and Christian practice in so much of the world, including the US, it is refreshing to be in the orbit of people whose family traditions enable them to keep on keeping on with such vigor, depth, and breadth. My only analogy would be the old culture of Christian Orthodoxy such as you would find in Ukraine and Bulgaria and Romania – such as I experience it whenever I go to New Jersey to teach and worship at our seminary. In any case, wonderful people, wonderful food, and wonderful conversation take place around the table for hours. Sabbath affords one the opportunity to discuss matters that don’t often make it to the table elsewhere: faith, ethics, traditions, and the fulfillment of your personhood.