I have wanted to write about what happened to my husband and me last Friday all week, but it has been busy and crazy. The first of the week we sadly said good-bye to friends that had been visiting from the states. And the day after they left I came down with the flu. I haven’t been sick like this in years. I did not enjoy spending 24 hours in bed–which is totally unusual for me.
But I am grateful for an early start to the day now and an hour to reflect and put into words our experience. Living in Israel gives us a bird’s-eye-view of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac–two ancient brothers with the same father that have been at war with each and God for centuries. The story is old but still makes the headlines in some form or fashion daily.
The place where we live in Jerusalem finds us situated between these two brothers literally as we live close to East Jerusalem by an Arab village. Daily as we come and go we are very aware of these two worlds. We pray for both. We believe in God’s healing power to bring reconciliation, but we know the problems are deep, ancient, and complex. There are no simple answers. We hear stories and are empathetic to the plights of both.
Last Friday my husband had to fill the car with gas. While at the station, an Arab man approached him begging him to buy a razor. My husband didn’t need it, so he refused kindly. Maybe it was my husband’s kindness, but the man became very desperate and pleaded with him to buy. He said that he couldn’t work and needed food. He carried on and on. It broke W’s heart, so he gave him some money, not the full price of the razor, but some money for food. The Arab man became enraged accusing my husband of hating Arabs and not buying from them, preferring the Jews.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. We often frequent Arab stores and have no problem buying from or giving them our business. But this is a common accusation. Many Arab vendors in the Old City become agitated if you don’t buy from them and complain that tourists would rather give their money to the Jews living in the country. Some days you can feel anger in the air as you walk from shop to shop. I have been afraid occasionally.
The Arab man’s anger just didn’t seem to match the situation. But later when I thought about it, I considered his plight–common to many. His anger was a reflection of years of misunderstanding that has escalated into urgency and painful desperation. They want to be heard. They want to be understood.
Later that afternoon we were returning from the airport with our daughter and found ourselves close to Meah She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. We had heard that the Hanukkah lights were beautiful around 5 PM and could be seen from the windows if you drive through slowly. We actually thought we had a few minutes until the Sabbath began, so we drove on the edge of Meah She’arim trying to see some lights. The street wasn’t closed yet, so we proceeded. We really didn’t want to offend anyone, but we actually thought is wasn’t quite sundown. This decision was very stupid, and we will never do it again.
As it happened, we got turned around and found ourselves driving deeper and deeper into the ultra-Orthodox part of town. The black hatters, dressed up in Hanukkah and Sabbath regalia poured from their homes just as the Sabbath began and were making their way by foot to near by synagogues… The streets were full of people. In fact, I have never seen so many ultra-Orthodox Jews on the streets.
They began shouting at us in anger: “Shabbos” which is Sabbath in Yiddish. It wasn’t completely dark yet, so we could see the expressions on their faces. They were violently angry that we were driving on their streets at the beginning of the Sabbath. They stomped passed us, flashed death looks, and I thought one man was going to hit our car with his hands. His white beard was so long that the wind split it in two as we passed him. I believe angels restrained him from touching our car.
I feared for our lives for the first time in Israel. They would have stoned our car, if they had rocks in their hands. I felt a murderous spirit. And we were truly lost, winding deeper and deeper into this exclusive section of town.
Desperately, my husband rolled down his window and asked for directions. The people stared at him in hatred and walked faster away from the car. I rolled down my window and pleaded, “We are lost. Can you direct us on how to get out of here. We are sorry.” The man and little boy who passed shot a death look at me, raised his head in piety, and marched on, determined to show us how evil we were for breaking the Sabbath by driving.
Even the children in the streets became angry. At the time, I remember feeling stunned at the level of hatred I felt from them–adults yes, but children, no.
Then an attractive young mother, with children around her feet stopped. She looked like an angel from heaven to me at that moment, although, I could feel her trepidation and desire to be quick. She said, “Turn left.” We said, “Thank you.” And she answered, “Shabbat Shalom” and scurried off.
After our left turn, it took a few moments to wind out away from the that other-worldly world that we had stumbled into innocently. We breathed sighs of relief and had a few good laughs later over it. But really it was not funny at the time.
So here we are caught between two brothers. And we are considering the extremities of both worlds. Just as tourists we have been touched and pained by brushing lives with these two enemies. Their fanatical lifestyles have nothing to do with each other at times, but I do see how they are misunderstood by the on looking world.
And I don’t pretend to understand all by my brief experience. I realize I am seeing through my own world view and experiences. But I am influenced by the lives around me.
Honestly, I feel a little out of place right now… longing for the home lights of the season in my own country… A place where culture is as familiar as warm flannel pajamas on snowy night in winter. In reality, I know home is the place of God’s choosing, and that as a pilgrim, I am looking not for home but for a “city whose builder and maker is God.” I must not settle but keep moving upward, onward toward that destiny.
I am also considering Emmanuel–God with us–the message of the season. What does it means in this situation here feeling the tension of the war between two brothers, feeling the pain of both, seeing the extremism of both…
This prayer by St. Francis is ever appropriate…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
when there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying [to ourselves] that we are born to eternal life.