While Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” accurately captures Jerusalem’s eye-catching architecture, it misses the mark in a few other areas. Life in Jerusalem these past 2 months has opened my eyes to its role as not only a spiritual center, but as a center for dialogue and culture, as well as a hub of arts and opportunities.
The week of November 1, my friends Lia, Benji, David, Sam, and I attended a movie screening in Jerusalem of the film “Mission: Hebron.” Screened by the organization All That’s Left (ATL), the movie features real-life testimonies of soldiers who were stationed in the Hebron area, and provides much food for thought.
It was particularly relevant to watch and discuss just days before tens of thousands of Israelis flowed into the city Hebron the past Shabbat (October 30) to coincide with the Torah reading of Parashat Chaei Sarah, in which the opening section tells how Abraham bought the plot at the Cave of Machpela, located in the Hebron area, from Efron the Hittite in order to bury his wife Sarah.
In the post-screening discussion, speakers emphasized how the reality in Hebron epitomizes the occupation and how Judaism and Jewish values are often distorted and weaponized in order to justify oppression. In fact, what I learn from the story of Abraham buying the plot is the exact opposite of what the Jewish settlers are doing: Abraham could have waived the Divine promise and told them “I’m taking this plot, it’s mine because God promised it to me” and he did have the capability to do it (remember his military-style raid that freed his nephew Lot?). However, Abraham despised violence, and preferred to buy the plot, pay full price, and follow all international laws and regulations regarding land purchases. We, too, as Abraham’s descendants, must follow all international laws and conventions, to settle the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The facilitator mentioned that the occupation’s main purpose is to protect and serve the religious Zionist settler movement, whom some classify as Jewish supremacists. This prompted me to ask why, then, do most Israelis—who are secular—support the occupation if it ultimately only serves the religious Zionist Jews. After the group discussion, a Palestinian man named Malcon walked up to me and politely said he’d like to provide his answer to my question, adding that he hopes it wouldn’t “trigger” me. He explained that to him and to other Palestinians, it makes total sense that all Israelis would support the occupation because Israel as a state was founded on settler colonial values and so the occupation is simply a continuation of those values. This indeed did trigger me, despite his caution, spurring a 30-minute conversation about the origins and motivations of the Olim, about nations’ right to self-determination, about subjugation of indigenous populations, and whether a state can be democratic while enforcing religious law, among other topics. This conversation with a random Palestinian resident of Jerusalem exposed me to a side of the city I hope to embrace further- one of dialogue across religion, ethnicity, and ideology.
Another facet of Jerusalem, one that indeed was more expected, is its embrace of traditional culture but in modern, 21st-century format. On Motzei Simchat Torah back in September, my friends and I attended what are called “Hakafot Shniyot,” or “Second Singing and Dancing with Torah Scrolls.” Not exactly sure what to expect, as the only Hakafot we’d ever been to were inside the halls and sanctuaries of synagogues, we walked down to the First Station with brewing excitement. Indeed, when we arrived, we saw something that could only exist in Israel. A band was playing the traditional Hakafot songs on a modern stage with techno lights and top-notch sound systems, while Jews of varying ages, religious affiliations, and backgrounds all conga-lined and hora-danced around Torahs in the center of dozens of restaurants and cafes. Anyone who wanted was given the chance to dance with the Torah (see video below) and the sense of Jewish community and togetherness was so palpable. SNAP_20210928-205806 (1)
Outside View of Church of the Holy Sepulchre
One of the really special parts about living in Jerusalem is being able to physically see and visit the sites I am learning about. In our Jerusalem Through the Ages class, I learned about the significance of the city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Yet I did not simply hear a professor yap about it or read long, boring articles in a textbook; rather, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest spots in the world for Christians, saw the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqusa Mosque from afar, and visited the Hezekiah Tunnels with which King David captured the city. And at Hebrew University, I have met people from all walks of life: Lutheran Pastoral students, Catholic university students studying theology, and dozens of Muslim and Arab students. I hear the Adhan – the Muslim call to prayer- from my seat in class on Mount Scopus every day. Additionally, in my Battle Over the Bible class, I learned about the
Aleppo Codex Exhibit at the Israel Museum
oldest known renditions of the Masoretic Text and Septuagint- the Aleppo Codex. After learning about it in a classroom, I took a 15-minute bus ride to see the real thing at the Israel Museum. Right before me was the very Aleppo Codex I learned about in class. Only possible in Israel!
Nava and I at Dance Class
Jerusalem, as I have come to learn, is a hub of art, and last week I took my first dance class in over 5 months at Studio 6. Scared of how out of shape I might be, these fears dissipated when I started dancing and felt so at home. Energized by my reunification with dance, I stepped completely out of my comfort zone and agreed to perform a dance solo for a Masa opening event in front of 1200 teenagers with only a two-week notice. While the main attraction of this event was a concert by the renowned Israeli band Hatikvah 6, the opening act (my dance-link below) definitely did not disappoint either!
Stay tuned to hear about my Shabbat experiences with family across the country!