Jerusalem, despite what Tel Avivis say, is an absolutely fascinating city. This week I hopped on a bus for a day trip. My dear friend from college was coming into town from New York. And I’ve been itching to get to know a side of Jerusalem few people here talk about: the Christian one.
I love churches. The more beautifully decorated and historic, the better. In a foreign language? Gold. Some of the prettiest art I’ve seen has been in cathedrals and churches. And I love learning about other faiths.
Jerusalem is a great place to visit churches. While much of the world (and this country) likes to bicker about Jews vs. Muslims and Muslims vs. Jews and endless news clips that only feed the narcissism of both groups, the fact is this is a Holy Land for many peoples. Including Christians, whose religion also comes from here.
Here’s how one day in Jerusalem went down. Walking towards the Old City, I popped into a bookstore. I LOVE books and especially used books in different languages and this store had exactly that. I met a 15 year old Hasidic kid named Shmuel who was browsing the books. An extremely friendly guy, we chatted as we perused. Shmuel loves nature and knows every park in Jerusalem. He loves hisboydedus (Modern Hebrew: hitbodedut)- going into nature and talking to God. Something I find spiritual too.
He struggled with whether he should go to such a bookstore or not, since some of the books would be forbidden in his community. I tried to show him some kindness and encouragement. I hope he keeps reading 🙂
Then I came across a tall black man in a black robe with a cross. Knowing a bit about Orthodox Christianity, my guess was he was an Ethiopian Orthodox priest. And I was right 🙂 His name was Zion and we walked together to his favorite coffee shop. Run by a very cute English guy with an Irish accent- with coffee from all over the world. For those who don’t know, coffee was invented in Ethiopia/Yemen. After a nice chat, I got info about an Ethiopian church I can visit next time, and I headed towards the Old City.
Jerusalem’s Old City has four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian. Armenians are Christian, so not sure about how that distinction came about, but that’s the way it is. I’ve visited much of the Old City but hadn’t spent much time in the Christian Quarter.
I wandered around asking shopkeepers in Arabic where the churches were. I made my way to a Catholic church…in the middle of a mass. The church was immaculate. Catholics know how to decorate 🙂 And the mass- the sermon, the music, the prayers- were all in Arabic. At a time when much of the Western World couldn’t imagine anything Christian being in Arabic, it’s a useful reminder that this language belongs to many people. And this perhaps can shatter some preconceived notions about the Middle East- and about Christianity itself.
The prayers were beautiful- the priest even quoted the Talmud. I can’t say my Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) is at a level where I can know word-for-word what he was quoting in his sermon (I’m not a Talmud expert either and it was echoey), but it was clear he was telling a story from Jewish religious literature. The sermon was something about all the latest news regarding sexual harassment- a rather forward topic for a Middle Eastern church based on my own preconceptions. I preferred, though, to look at the art and soak in the music. What a unique experience. Every religion has beauty to share.
Then I walked around the outside of a Greek Orthodox Church- closed but will visit next time. I did get to use the Greek I’ve been learning to read the signs- there’s a lot of Greek in Jerusalem! I wonder if the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding can prove that the word “Jerusalem” comes from Greek too 😉
I then used my Spanish to help two lost Christian pilgrims from Colombia find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Christian tradition, this site is where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried and resurrected. What’s unique about it is that the church is actually multiple churches. Every section of the building is controlled by a different denomination. There are Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox areas. Each decorated according to the traditions of the group and filled with beautiful artwork and quotes in their respective languages.
In the course of an hour or two, I talked with a Coptic priest, Armenian priests, and Catholic pilgrims from Chicago. What a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.
On my way up the hill to meet my friend from college- who’s Modern Orthodox (kind of completing a day of almost every religious denomination imaginable)- I heard people speaking Spanish. They were from Costa Rica! Costa Rica is a very small country- I grew up with neighbors from there and my high school organized trips there. What’s even more crazy is that the Costa Ricans…had bumped into other Costa Ricans. In Jerusalem. Add in one Brazilian guy and an Arab shopkeeper with a few words of Spanish, and all of us were chatting and having a good time. I love Spanish- it was my major and I’ve used it in every job I’ve had since college, including as a Spanish teacher. I love going back and forth between languages so speaking Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese was pretty neat 🙂
We even took a picture together:
After a heartwarming and laughter-filled dinner with my friends, I headed back to Tel Aviv.
The Holy Land is nothing if not complex. There is such a richness here- a density of meaning- that is hard to find anywhere else. It can lead to great strife. And it can lead to absolutely miraculous days where you realize you’ve spoken six languages and met people from all over the world.
Jerusalem in Hebrew means “city of peace” and in Arabic it means “the holy one”. In Tel Aviv, it’s used as a slur.
For me, Jerusalem is a fantastic place. It’s a place where with a little imagination, you can hear Muhammad riding on his Buraq, you can hear the Jewish priests on the Temple Mount, and you can hear Jesus’s footsteps.
Where you can hear a priest talking in Armenian and then find Dutch tourists dancing to techno in the shuk.
Jerusalem- leave your assumptions at home 🙂