The North: where my Arabic can breathe

Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.

That’s what my cover photo says.  That’s what Rabbi Ben Zuma said 2,000 years ago.

Did I find this in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem?  No.  I found it in a Druze village- Yanuh- with a Jewish population of 0.  An absolutely gorgeous place with stunning greenery all around.  Super friendly people.  And- at least when I was there- not a single tourist.  Due to my clothing and my fabulous blue sunglasses, everyone knew I was from out of town.

And when I opened my mouth to speak Arabic, the smiles were constant.  The laughter, the joy, the jokes- jokes with me.  Because I can speak to them in their native tongue.  I am a polyglot- I speak 8 languages fluently or proficiently.  I have an “ear” for language, undoubtedly, but I also use them.  A lot.  I don’t memorize vocabulary on my phone- I hang out in Druze villages.  I talk to cab drivers in Arabic.  The other day I got my friend a discount on strawberries at the market in my Jewish neighborhood because the Arab vendor was so excited that I spoke Arabic.

Why would Arabic speakers here be so excited to hear me speak it?  I can think of a few reasons.  For me, it honestly just feels natural.  I love speaking Arabic.  And unfortunately due to the extremists trying to tear down the border fence in Gaza to “liberate” my neighborhood, I’ve felt further and further from the language.  When certain Palestinians decide to fly burning kites over the border fence to set my country’s farms on fire, I have a hard time connecting to the language they speak.

Which reminded me- not only Palestinians speak Arabic.  A lot of times, the news media and even leftist Israelis who choose to learn the language are exclusively focused on Palestinians.  It’s not a bad thing to want to dialogue with them- the more people learning languages the better.  In all societies, especially here.

It’s just that Palestinians are not our only neighbors.  Certainly not our only neighbors who speak Arabic.  About 20% of the Israeli population- citizens- speaks Arabic as a first language.  And lucky for me, the Arabic-speakers up north, in the Galilee and Golan, speak the dialects closest to mine.  Syrian.

Why do I speak Syrian Arabic?  Besides the fact that it, perhaps alongside Lebanese, is in my opinion the most beautiful Arabic dialect, it was a bit due to circumstance.  At my university, I studied Fusha, Modern Standard Arabic (more of a literary language).  Only after 3 years did I have the chance to learn 3ammiyya, or spoken Arabic.  I had the choice of Egyptian or Syrian, and I chose the latter because it was mutually intelligible with Palestinian.  And I also care about dialogue.  My professor was from Damascus.  He was homophobic and somewhat anti-Semitic, but his Arabic was astounding and I learned so much.

Since then, Syria was plunged into civil war and I never got the chance to visit.  Though, along with Lebanon, it would be my dream to do so.  Inshallah- God Willing.  In the meantime, the closest thing I can get to speaking my Damascus Arabic is to simply hop on a bus up north.  Or speak with my Syrian refugee friends, which I do each week.

The Druze, in particular, migrated to northern Israel over the past 800 years.  From Aleppo, Lebanon, and beyond.  Of course the Druze in the Golan Heights were living in Syria just 50 years ago, so their Arabic is very close to mine too.

And to a person- everyone is excited to hear me speaking their language.  And their dialect.  Not Palestinian Arabic- Syrian Arabic.  Quite often people actually ask me if I’m Lebanese or Syrian.  The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard.

Today the coolest thing happened.  I was visiting Isfiya, a Druze village with significant Christian and Muslim minorities.  After visiting a Bedouin shop and some churches (the Christian dialects up here are also super close to my own and fun to hear), I had dinner at a Druze grocery store.  Yes, because the grocery store also doubled as a roadside food stand with kebabs.  I love my country.

While my kebabs were roasting, I popped over to the cellphone shop.  I want to buy a portable phone charger so I can travel at ease and get some extra juice when I need it.  I initially approached the young man in Hebrew.  And then, just like every Arab and Druze person does here millions of times a day, I slipped into Arabic.  Five Arabic words here, one Hebrew word there- it’s the most beautiful and fun thing.  Kind of an Arabic Yiddish with amazing wordplay.  A young kid said to me today: “ani rotzeh sheanja7“.  I want to win.  The italics Hebrew, the bold Arabic, and it flowed perfectly as we giggled at the combination.  It’s fun when you can enjoy the best of each other’s cultures.  To the point where they’re hummus and tehina.  You can’t fully separate them and they’re delicious together.

I’m at the phone store and my Arabic starts flowing and a Druze man, no more than 20 years old, lets out an “Allahu Akbar!” to shake the ground.  In such shock and delight at seeing a Jewish American-Israeli speaking his language, he simply praised God.

I had this deep inner sense of joy and satisfaction.  I felt so, so complemented.  It was funny.  It was sweet.  It was sincere.  And it was a beautiful way to take a phrase that radical Islamic terrorists use to blow people like me up- and instead use it to bring us together in unity.  In a cellphone store.  It tickled me.

This kind of reaction happens to me a lot, especially up north.  When I tell some of my Israeli Jewish friends about the villages I’ve visited- a good number of them have never even been.  Or in some cases, even heard of them.  Or even think they’re worth visiting.  It’s not universal- I’ve hitchhiked with Jews who were visiting these villages.  But it’s an extreme, extreme minority.  Jews here do not speak Arabic.  Other than older generations of Jews from Middle Eastern countries and a few dedicated young people who paid attention in school (or the army), Jews don’t care to learn Arabic here.

It makes me sad.  On a few levels.  One, because I understand why.  There is a 70 year old trauma-inducing conflict here, separate educational systems for Jews and Arabic-speakers, and largely separate residential patterns.  And while there are people in both societies who want to mix, overall there is a desire to retain communal identities.  Which can make it hard to learn each other’s languages.  Especially Arabic, whose spoken varieties aren’t standardized and really require in-person experiences.

And yet, only about 10% of Jews here speak Arabic but 77% of Arab Israelis speak Hebrew.  About 29% of Arabs here can’t read Hebrew- which is an issue for employment, social cohesion, and communication.  But let’s just say Arab citizens of Israel are way, way more invested in learning Hebrew than vice-versa.  Which is a national shanda.  That’s Yiddish for scandal.

While this may be par for the course for majority-minority relations (after all, how many non-Latino Americans speak Spanish?  Answer: about 10%, the same as Jewish Israelis with Arabic), it’s not acceptable.  While I value the smiles I get from young Druze and Christian Arabs and even Muslim kids (in those villages I feel are safe enough to visit- which is not all of them), I don’t want to be an oddity.  I want more of my countrymen to stop whining and pick up a book.  Take a class.  Visit your neighboring village.

Arabic speakers in Israel are almost universally happy to help.  And eager to see you give a shit.  I don’t really care how many times you voted for Meretz or how you do a once-a-year interfaith Seder.  Stop being a lazy (fill in the blank with something that will motivate you) and get to work!  If you spent half as much time learning Arabic as you did complaining about your salad dressing, you’d be fluent.  Arabic takes practice but it’s so much fun!  It will take you on new adventures- musically, socially, geographically, historically, and beyond.  It’s a true civilization.

And the good news is that even when some people who speak the language are becoming increasingly extremist, you can find great places in Israel to practice the language safely.  Basically, any Druze or Christian village, most Bedouin towns, and even some other Muslim villages like Abu Ghosh.  Or beyond, when the conditions are right.  I’ve traveled in some deeply conservative Muslim villages and had some close calls- so I can understand if you don’t want to start there.  The vast majority of people I’ve met in all places were cool.  It is true that it just takes one nutjob to end your life.  So do some research if you want to go far off the beaten path.

In the end, the North of Israel is the best.  It’s the place where I dabke dance on the street with Druze kids, where I counsel a bi-curious young man in Arabic, where I get private tours of churches followed by tons of homemade pastries.  It’s a land of generosity, of green hills, of smiles.

When I leave a Druze village, a place where my Judaism and my Israeliness and my Arabic-speaking identity are all validated, I hate getting on the bus.  Tel Aviv is a vibrant, energetic, queer-friendly coastal city.  With a beach.  There are things here that are unique and maybe it made sense for me to start here.

As I spend more time in other parts of the country, especially the North, I wonder if Tel Aviv will really be home for me.  Maybe I’ll split my time (perhaps people up north will want to trade apartments once in a while 😉 ).  Maybe I’ll live here but keep traveling a lot.  Maybe I’ll just move up north.

What I do know is this: Tel Aviv smells terrible.  And when I hop off the bus, the stench is overwhelming, the noise is loud, the nature is nonexistent.  Yes, there are exceptions.  There are beautiful areas near me just south of the city.

But would I rather have a late night pizza place or make some at home and sit in a forest and stare at the stars in awe?

Where my Arabic and my soul can breathe.

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?

No, there’s no racist punchline 😉

This is a question I get a lot.  Sometimes “well meaning” American progressives come here and start calling every Arab they meet a “Palestinian”.  Perhaps out of a desire to validate their identity, but without considering that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For starters, there are Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  There are also Palestinians in other countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere.  Those in the West Bank are largely governed by the Palestinian Authority and those in Gaza by Hamas.  Israel exerts partial military control within the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and at border crossings.  Gaza is entirely independently governed by Hamas and entry to Israel or Egypt is strictly controlled by the respective governments.  All of those people are pretty clearly Palestinian.  Maybe a few Samaritans in Hebron would identify otherwise- not entirely sure.  But almost to a T, regardless of religion (almost all Palestinians there are Muslim, there is a small Christian minority), these people are Palestinian.

Now, moving westward from the West Bank, there is East Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem came under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967.  Because of the sacredness of this city for Jews, Israel treats it differently for legal purposes.  While West Jerusalem was already part of Israel in 1948, East Jerusalem, which was primarily Arab, became officially annexed to the city in 1967.  Meaning, its Arab population has Israeli residency cards.  This allows them greater job opportunities, freedom of travel both within Israel and abroad, and more contact with Jewish Israelis.  There is still discrimination and it’s not on a level that you can compare with the West Bank, for example.  The vast majority of East Jerusalem Arabs would probably identify as Palestinian.  I’ve noticed this anecdotally through my travels there and I believe polls would back this up.  That being said, since East Jerusalem Arabs are eligible to work in Israel, some actually end up working for the government and even volunteering for national service.  Or the Israeli military.  So I think the layers of identity for them would be a bit less straightforward than someone in Ramallah.

Now, on to pre-1967 Israel.  There are several groups of Arabic-speakers in Israel.  First, there are Jews.  Jews have lived in predominantly Arab countries for two millennia.  They lived there, by and large, before the Arabs even arrived.  They then mixed their Hebrew and Aramaic with Arabic to create their own unique Judeo-Arabic languages.  From Morocco to Iraq to Yemen.  Often written in the Hebrew alphabet, like Yiddish.  Sometimes intelligible to their Muslim and Christian neighbors- and sometimes not.  In recent decades, the number of Judeo-Arabic speakers has declined.  And there still are many Jews in Israel who speak Arabic.  Not just those who learn it at school.  But also those, like my Syrian and Iraqi neighbors, who grew up with the language.  The vast, vast, vast majority of these Jews do not identify as Arab.  While some of that is tied to the stigma of being Arab, discrimination against Mizrachim, and the conflict with the Palestinians, there are other factors at work too.  First, there is the fact that Arabs committed massacres against their indigenous Jewish communities in the 1950s and 1960s, which forced Jews to come to Israel.  Most Jews lost their Iraqi, Egyptian, Yemeni citizenship and all their property.  It’d be hard for them not to come to Israel angry and wanting some distance from the people who were supposed to protect them.  Only to find their new Arab neighbors here blowing themselves up in pizzerias.  The other factor is that the Middle East wasn’t always Arab.  Arabs are from Arabia and conquered the region to spread Islam.  Jews have been living in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonian Exile, 600 years before Christianity.  Over a thousand years before Islam.  So to call an Iraqi Jew Arab- that could be a real invalidation of their identity and history.  A small minority of Mizrachim do identify as Arab Jews, often as a way of contrasting with the European elite.  But I would strongly recommend not calling Mizrachi Arabic-speakers Arab and certainly not Palestinian.

Notice we haven’t even gotten to the Christians, Muslims, and Druze.  In general, Arabs who are citizens of Israel do not define themselves as Palestinians.  Here is some polling data:

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Here’s another poll with similar but sometimes contradictory data (perhaps depending on the phrasing of the question- also the first poll doesn’t include East Jerusalem):

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What overlaps is that about 15-20% of Arabs who have Israeli residency identify as Palestinian.  Sometimes hyphenated or attached to the word “Israeli”.  A larger portion identify as some variation of Arab, again sometimes hyphenated as Arab-Israeli or Arab citizen of Israel.  And a significant number just identify as Israeli.  For what it’s worth, there are also Arabs here who primarily identify by their religion, not their language or ethnicity.  Food for thought for people who are looking for a simple black-and-white breakdown.

Druze, Christians, Circassian Muslims, and Bedouin Muslims tend to identify more with Israel and less with Palestinian identity.  There is also a strong contingent of Christians who feel strongly about their Arab or Palestinian identity.  And other Arabic-speaking Christians who don’t even identify as Arab.  Many Druze, contrary to Israeli popular belief, feel they are both Druze and Arab.  I believe I got that info from a Pew survey, but am having trouble tracking it down (feel free to send it!).  Very, very, very few Druze would call themselves Palestinian (though a few do like Maher Halabi).  And many would be quite offended at the statement.  And they are native Arabic speakers.

Among these groups, Druze and Circassians crafted agreements with the Israeli government for their sons to be drafted into the military.  By agreement.  An increasing number of Bedouins and Christians- and even Arab Muslims- are choosing to volunteer or do national service, even though they are not legally obligated.  There are even Arab Christian priests encouraging it.

It’s worth noting the Druze mentioned here are the ones in pre-1967 Israel.  The ones in the Golan Heights were formerly citizens of Syria- and some now are taking Israeli citizenship in light of the brutal civil war.  They are not obligated to serve in the military and would almost certainly identify themselves as Syrian rather than Palestinian.  My friend’s dad says he’s a “Syrian now living in Israel”.  And I imagine people in his community have a variety of ways of describing their multifaceted identities.

If you’d assume that Israeli Muslims would be the most likely to identify as Arab or Palestinian and less so as Israeli, you’d be correct.  With some very important qualifications.  As mentioned, Bedouins and Circassians- both Muslims, are much less likely to identify as Palestinian in any form.  In the Bedouins’ case, Islam is generally much more important than nationalism and they’ve often been discriminated against by their sedentary Arab neighbors.  Circassians are quite fully integrated into the society and while many speak Arabic as a second language, they tend to be much more Israeli.

It’s also worth noting that if someone identifies as Arab or Palestinian here, there is a difference.  When someone says “Arab-Israeli” or “Arab citizen of Israel”, there are a few potential reasons why.  First off, there are Arab nationalists here who are against Palestinian identity.  Pan-Arab nationalism, which believes in an Arab identity stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, is less a fan of state-based nationalism (e.g. Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian nationalism).  There is the concept of bilad al-sham- the Levant.  Some Arabs here prefer to think of themselves as part of the greater Arab culture rather than the particularistic Palestinian identity.  Palestinian identity- like every other country in the region- is a modern concept.  Not because the people didn’t exist here (before anyone goes there), but rather because this area didn’t have borders before colonialism. Which is why the Arabic spoken in northern Israel is almost identical to Syrian or Lebanese and the Bedouin Arabic in the Negev has a Saudi or Jordanian tint to it.

Another reason why people here might prefer Arab over Palestinian is because there is pressure here to dissociate themselves from the conflict.  Someone might even choose one label in one context and another in another.  Identity can be relative.

A final, and important reason, is that some Arabs here just don’t identify with Palestinian nationalism.  And not because, in the case I described, they are pan-Arab nationalists, but because they simply want to live a good life here.  They don’t like politics.  They don’t like violence.  Some may even feel that if they took on the label Palestinian, it does a disservice to the real suffering of people in the West Bank and Gaza.  That basically if you have Israeli citizenship, things might be rough sometimes, but overall the quality of living is quite good.  And to compare yourself to someone living in abject poverty and misery- that’s not quite so fair.

Sometimes when American and European progressives come here, they try to correct me when I call someone Arab.  “Don’t you mean Palestinian?”  or they’ll just work the word “Palestinian” into their response- even though I just said Arab.  Maybe it’s not their intention, but I feel there’s a kind of “let me educate you” haughtiness.  That somehow if I’m calling someone Arab instead of Palestinian- someone who’s a citizen of Israel- it must be because I’m a hyper nationalist intent on denying their identity.  And thank God for the Western Liberal who can come teach me civilization.

And they’re wrong.  Because I have a basic rule- I identify you the way you want to be identified.  If I meet an Arabic-speaker here in Israel who prefers to be called Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli, Palestinian citizen of Israel- I will call them that.  Or Arab.  Or Arab-Israeli.  Whatever they choose I validate that.  And I’m not going to impose my New York Times Huffington Post NPR podcast understanding of the Middle East on them.  Because newspapers are printed in black and white.  Which is about the depth that they can offer of a society thousands of years old halfway around the world.

So I encourage you- don’t put me or my Arab/Palestinian/Arab-Israeli/Arab citizens of Israel/Christian/Muslim/Druze/Bedouin friends in a box.  Because boxes are for shoes.  And unless you’re willing to walk in ours, you should probably return them to the store.

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?  Ahmed, Maryam, Ovadia.  Even Matt or Matah.

Or as the cover photo says: friend.


An amazing day that can only happen here

Today, I had the most fascinating and fabulous day.

I started the morning in Shefa’mr (Shefaram) in Hebrew.  Shefa’mr is the most pluralistic city in Israel.  A community with Druze, Muslims, and Christians, it is one of the rare places in Israel where people of different faiths live next door to each other.  As a matter of practice.  Not like Jerusalem, where there are different groups largely in different neighborhoods.  Literally side by side.

It’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit.  The other reason is it, like the North, is absolutely gorgeous.  Take a look at a slideshow of some of my pictures:

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Before walking around town, I needed some breakfast and got delicious hummus and pita and falafel from a Druze restaurant.  According to the owner, apparently the town loves Argentina’s soccer team.  Someone even went to the World Cup in Brazil to cheer them on.  You’ll see from the pictures below I took today that he’s telling the truth, although you’ll also see there seems to be a (rival?) Brazilian fan club:

Not what I expected to find when I came to live in the Middle East.  Which makes it all the more interesting and fun to discover!  I love finding things that challenge my assumptions.

In the village, I visited churches, mosques, and a Druze holy site.  There’s even a synagogue.  There’s even an ice cream shop that sells KNAFE ICE CREAM!  If you don’t know what knafe is, it’s this.  And it’s delicious, even as ice cream.

I was the only tourist in town today.  Not sure how many come on other days, but I definitely didn’t meet another outsider- not even another Israeli Jew.  And by and large, people were really nice.  It’s important to remember there are toxic and kind people everywhere (and a whole lot of people somewhere in between).  I’ve learned that people of all backgrounds live in gray space and nuance- it has frankly allowed me to see Arabs as people.  Rather than exoticizing them as all good or all bad or “Christian ones are good and Muslims are bad” (as many, many Israeli Jews say)- I’ve worked really hard to get to the point where I just see them as people.  Complex, like me.  It has added a softness to my Arabic that makes the language gentler and even more fun to speak.

I met with all sorts of fascinating people today- the Muslim woman who keeps the keys to the synagogue, the zany ice cream store owner who couldn’t believe a Jew could speak Arabic like me, the Druze women who wanted me to explain Donald Trump to them.

There’s a gentleness to Shefa’mr.  It’s kind of a preview of how this place could look with more peace and harmony.  More mixing and less hatred.  Or perhaps a view into a past here that once was.  Like my cover photo of a Greek Catholic Cross in front of the mosque, Shefa’mr is about living together.  In the words of a Druze woman: “one of our neighbors is Christian, the other Muslim.  Yes there is racism like anywhere else.  But we share in our sorrows and we share in our joys together.”

Before I visited Shefa’mr, when I was deciding whether to go, a Jewish Israeli told me: “why would you go there?  What is there to see?”  When you meet someone like this, ignore them.  She’s missing out and it’s truly sad to live in such ignorance of the beauty at your doorstep.  Shefa’mr is gorgeous and I did some amazing peaceful thinking there today.

After a thoughtful and inspirational morning in Shefa’mr, I hopped on a bus and then a train back to Tel Aviv.  I hate coming back home to Tel Aviv these days.  The city is loud, the people are often rude, there is an intensity to life here that just sucks sometimes.

Luckily a friend had invited me out for Purim, today’s Jewish holiday.  In the U.S., we tend to eat hamantaschen, read the megillah, have carnivals for kids, dress up in costumes, and if you’re a young professional maybe go to a party.  It’s fun and it’s decidedly low-key compared to what I experienced today.

Tel Aviv Purim is Jewish Mardi Gras.  It’s Carnaval.  It’s Jewish Sao Paolo going nuts- and it’s amazing.  I don’t drink.  I do dance.  I do love to talk to random people, including shirtless Jewish boys who are feeling friendly.  Purim is party after party- in the street, in the club.  Everyone is happy.  I have never, ever seen so many Israeli Jews smile and laugh at once.  And it goes on for several days- today was just day one.

I’ve never been to a cooler Jewish party in my life.  It’s huge.  And fun.  And for this one moment in time, Israeli Jews let go of the stress and basically don’t give a f*ck.  They just relax and have fun.

I had such a great time.  I suppose the intensity I hate in Tel Aviv has its occasional advantages.  I can’t imagine a small town in Israel- Jewish or otherwise- putting together this level of festivity.  It’s amazing.

I haven’t yet experienced all the holidays in Israel.  I have experienced most of them.  Purim is now my favorite Israeli holiday.  It’s like New Orleans filled with cute Jewish boys, dance music, and silly (sometimes racist) costumes.

If I had it my way, every month, maybe even every week would be Purim.  Israeli Jews need release.  And perhaps if they had more of it, more of them would be nicer and relaxed.

My day started with Druze, Christians, and Muslims and ended with a street fair in Tel Aviv.  Few people here live like I do.  And I encourage more to do so in the way that they can.  Cross boundaries.  Speak Arabic in the morning in the hillsides and rock out to Britney Spears at night.  Discover the secret Argentinean fan club in an Arab village and then flirt with half naked men in Hebrew as the sun rises.

I’m happy I found my way today.  My way to a good day, a fantastic day.  A day that even ended with flirting with a non-Jewish German I met while walking home to my apartment- he’s a nurse at the hospital around the corner!

This place where I live is both terrible and full of magic.  As I drift to sleep after an incredible day, I’m glad I lived today the way I did.

May it inspire us to find the stars shining where we least expect them.

Jesus and Jerusalem

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.

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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 🙂