Perspectives of Israel
“Shalom.” I said it because it was one of the only words I knew in Hebrew. I wanted to get the sound of it rolling across my tongue. Peace.
I learned how to say Thank You somewhere above the Mediterranean. Todah.
And with my first breath of dusty air, I confessed my heart to antiquity.
“Ani ohev otach.” The final consonant of the phrase rumbled unfamiliarly, gutturally, lodging in the back of my throat. I love you. Now I had to rely on other connections I had with this land to explore it, as I had already exhausted every word I knew of its language. Peace. Love. I could only be thankful Hope was as evident in action as the other two.
Israel. God’s Holy Land. Physical, mystical, it enlivened my every sense. As my steps crunched Ben Gurion Airport gravel, this first time I had ever left North American soil, I shifted all consciousness into observation, wanting to experience it all, watching, feeling, waiting for the completeness of the images I had started in daydreams to fill. I thought of how many had claimed this tiny plot of land; I felt elated to walk among them, refusing just to take, but also to give.
I had come to get a fuller picture of my religion. To expand the rough draft my Americanized brand of Christianity had begun. This was a land of olive roots—peace and attachment—for my soul.
My identification with this heritage had started twenty-three years ago, thousands of miles, an ocean and a different culture away in Bible-belt Texas. I had a lot of passion ignited. But I also had a lot of questions, a lot of stereotypes started, that the tangibility of Israel could mature.
The perspective shifts I would experience in the process were dizzying. I could only hope to absorb, to record, to photograph, to reflect later.
Now I shall give. To you, my American audience, in case you grew up as I did only seeing half simply because of geography, a sketched map outline un-fleshed. I wish to give you more to the image of Israel, of Christianity, of humanity.
2009. America was still in the War on Terrorism which soaked our perception of the Middle East with images of border riots and culture clashes staining ancient streets with blood, with whirling turbans and religious collisions with Western democracy. I had trembled as I was searched extra thoroughly at the airport, and stepped with racing heart into unknown conflict. On the other side of the globe from the only part of Earth I had ever touched, forgive me, but I was a bit shocked to see that Tel Aviv was a much modernized, orderly and thriving city. My sense of threat vanished, faded not because of the modernization—which ebbed or intensified as I criss-crossed the country—but because of the familiarity of humankind living there despite cultural differences. I fell easily into awestruck fascination as I traveled across the diverse wilderness, uniting past, present and future, and into Jerusalem where the faces of humanity were still rimmed in tasseled fabric, black Orthodox hats or circular Yamakas. There, the inner secrets of mankind still clung closely to tradition. There, the air smelled of lamb and mint, and the communities were split into four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter, though they all merged in the Old City to worship or shop or sell at huge bazaars. Humanity in division, humanity in unison, mulling it over across laundry lines and pomegranate juice.
In the congestion, the air burst with Muslim prayer calls singing strangely in my ears over loudspeakers to echo over the valley, bathing the sacred stones of the Last Supper and burial place of the Davidic line. Who owns the air? Or the rocks it falls on? Once, an Israeli pulled out his driver’s license and revealed that his nationality was listed as Jewish; he felt it undermined his claim on this land. (In America, I am not listed under the nationality of Christian.) These things shocked and confused me; they were a testament to a greater tolerance than this land was often given credit, of a hostility in return infused like tattoo ink to guarantee they did not get too comfortable. Far out in the white-yellow wilderness, camels plod in long, roped progression, bearing their yoke with restrained dignity in the fashion of their owners.
The mixed Jerusalem locals lived in a sort of harmony which rippled with an undercurrent of tension that could at any moment break loose but did not, sharing holy sites and living together on blood-soaked, God-blessed land, threatened with the claims of so many nations, sharing insights with tourists. I felt a sort of longing, a type of envy that they lived on land with such a past, with such a future, even amidst a troubled present, and lived for higher goals than consumerism while still incorporating it necessarily into their lives. But everything they did seemed to hold a distinct legacy which reworked my accustomed view of profit. This was life. High goals happening. People living for principles; living with generations of tradition under their feet to remind them. They say anywhere you put a shovel in the ground in Israel will be deemed an archeological site; every inch of space has been lived upon, over and over. There is no blank slate, only a limestone bedrock and well-sifted layers of pen and pew dust.
The rush of life filling the lungs as the soul expands is its own kind of frenzy, its own kind of rapture away from the mundane and trivial. The effort of higher function stretches the confined wings of the immortal within the mortal so that for a moment, a human has a mind-splitting sensation of an ethereal grandeur buried within, waiting, insisting, luring with a sense of purpose, a meaning to it all.
The modernistic independence and superiority of my psyche re-shaped and embraced thousands of years of intertwined generations as I rode from the southern tip of borderland Eilat along the Red and Dead Seas stacked with bright coral and salt pillars, along the ancient Spice Route of the Magi. In a day’s drive, I passed millennia of history through the sandy peaks of the Sinai and Paran deserts dotted occasionally with Ark-ancestor Acacia and nomadic Bedouins hauling camel trains and new, portable water tanks past phone wires. On across the forests and rock-terraced valleys of David’s childhood spotted with crumbling Watch Towers where humans spotted Angels, the nondescript pastures hidden where Saul’s men marched against giants, the advanced agriculture of the once-desolate Jordanian Rift Valley now thriving with inch-and-a-half, molasses-sweet dates, and through tiny towns with ancient names, ancient women sweeping shops and ancient ground being broken back open with wells shooting deep like dark tunnels to Sheol. With a few other Americans, I pulled up a viper coiled around rope as we dredged a pail of water up from the depths in the fashion of Rachel and other women so many centuries ago. Some local boys had sat shirtless and ready for an adventure-plunge when we had arrived and disturbed their intentions. Their predecessors’ promise of the Exodus copper-snake miracle hung ever-present in the breeze, still protecting them, and us, from the vipers’ bite if we just looked up from our own plans and trusted in something greater.
Miracles. The air seemed ripe, sizzling with their potential: the placid waters of the Galilee overlooked by the temples of pagan storm and chaos gods, remembering the Man who calmed them; the rows of gravestones lining the Kidron Valley, climbing Mt. Moriah in hopeful homage to the Eastern Gate and the prophecy it holds; the lone cloud shaped as an angel appearing in the cloudless sky above my head during a Shabbot ceremony; and Gabriel walking the streets with little boys selling olive sprigs near Gethsemene.
The giggles of native children echoing in Hezekiah’s water-swept, stone-chiseled tunnel like a pitch-dark, water-park ride still ring in my ears. The whispered complaints that Jewish Holy Sites might be given to Palestine in political moves of Western civilization still haunt me. The chained caravans of camels still sway me to sleep. The prayer I pled in Hannah’s footsteps at Shiloh still pours from my lips. And the images of Israel still fill my meditations where Bible text leaves off.
I sat far, far underground in a cave beneath the Holy of Holies. As I looked up, I saw a picture of Jesus spray-painted on the stone. This was Hebrew graffiti. Now that I sat here, it told the legend of God’s interaction with mankind in a vertical alignment. God the Father in the Ark sat above Jesus the Son, above the Holy Spirit—God’s newest promise within mankind—within me. It was Handwriting on the Wall. Mene Mene Tekel Uphasin. I thought of the bus station we as modern humanity had built on the spot Christ was crucified. Present the same as past, mankind had been weighed and found wanting, God intervened, and humankind hopes. And the rocks record; they are but film for a lasting perspective. The Israelites still live off these rocks. They build them into alters. Christianity lives off these rocks. These grains of sand are patterned as precious heartbeats, signaling life.
Near the Ramon Crater, an Israeli man told me my birthday falls during the parashah (the Weekly Torah portion read in the Temple) of Re’eh. I did not know what that meant. He replied that it was my blessing from my Father.
Re’eh means “see” in Hebrew.
I was given the blessing to see.
To see beyond texts, into life, into the supernatural.
To see new sides of my God, of humanity.
To see expanding images.