When I explain to friends and family that my recent trip to Israel changed my life; eyebrows rise and fall in a Spock-like look of pseudo arrogant incredulity. I know exactly what is going on in their minds. I have become a bible-thumping arm-raising revivalist born-again annoying Christian. At this point and if truth be told, I let them ponder because I do not want to share Israel. I almost feel an uncanny selfish need to keep Israel to myself. Why?
Initially and pragmatically; my trip to Israel was just another checkmark on my “bucket list.” After all, if one is to be considered a true Christian, especially a Catholic, one should at least take a one-time trip to the Big Four: Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, and Israel. These are “the giants” of every Catholic and Christian “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. We come to a crossroad in our Christian faith where we need a little “muscle” to take us across the finish line and “forever amen”. We feel this urge to come face to face with our faith in places we perceive as Holy, sacrosanct, and closer to God. We make a last attempt at bartering with God for favors, where we assume God’s presence is most prevalent.
Cynicism aside; my kinship with Israel and Jewish traditions started many years ago in a most unexpected way. Being a military wife, my best friends went in and out of my life like revolving doors. Thirty years ago my first Jewish encounter occurred when another military wife moved into the apartment below ours. She was from Tel-Aviv. At that time, my basic knowledge of Jewish traditions and Jewish history could be chalked down to watching repeats of Fiddler on the Roof and a visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I was basically a dumb goy. Both military wives and far from home: we became kindled spirits. We discovered that we had more in common than not. We bonded instantaneously and I quickly became fascinated by her outlook on life, her faith, her traditions, and her marriage to a Christian goy. The fact that I had more in common with this Jew than with most of my Christian friends might have been construed by some as bizarre. But we were the perfect fit. She would always rub it in that I could not be a Christian without first being a Jew. And so it began. My love affair with a way of life which I found compelling and yet so different to mine. My fascination with a people whose resiliency and individualism strongly binds them through faith and sets them equally apart by that same faith. A contradiction of life, joy, pain, and prayer. Why did Judaism seem compatible to my Christian life? Could I have both? Why the compulsion to learn Hebrew? What is the magnetic pull?
From Haifa to Jerusalem, I followed the ancient paths into my Christian past. All paths led to the Bible and Judaism. Traveling to the “must-see” places, nothing prepared me for an encounter into my spirituality and the deep sense of God in Jerusalem. Jerusalem became the epicenter of my Christian faith but also my realization that my faith included a strong dose of Jewish DNA. In Jerusalem I “broke the code” on why I felt this “pull” toward Judaism and the urge to learn Hebrew.
Jerusalem led me to a place where I never thought I would discover the true meaning of prayer and God. Throughout Israel I knelt in churches, worshiped on the Sea of Galilee, prayed at the Jordan River, heard “the story” on Masada, and walked the Via Dolorosa “with” Christ. But nothing came close to my “encounter” with God in Jerusalem. Specifically: Kotel ha-Ma’aravi or the Western Wall. I touched that wall and a powerful surge reduced me to tears and dropped me to my knees. Was it God? Or just the experience? Was I carried away by the praying and the singing that is so contagious? I really don’t know, and frankly I don’t want to know because I want to believe. One thing for sure: I became a better Christian because I went to Israel, but I became a Jew at Kotel ha-Ma’aravi. And as I watched women praying and swaying I felt cheated because I could not be part of what seemed to be the holiest of experiences. Praying and singing in Hebrew. I wanted that. I actually coveted it. And that was the decisive moment I knew I had to learn Hebrew. I had to belong.
Am I less a Christian for embracing Jewish traditions? Christ was a Jew. He was born as one and died as one. So: what is Christianity? Probably there is a valid argument in saying that Christians were Jews that followed Christ. As Christians, we were and are still led to believe that Yisrael is also our land. We read and follow the same Biblical references as Jews; therefore as Christians we must and should reconcile with the fact that our own faith is an extension of Judaism. That of course is a debate for another day. But my reasons for studying Hebrew go beyond the Bible, faith, and religious traditions. Israel has changed the Playbook of my life. It is now more complicated.
When I recently wished someone Shabbat Shalom, I was asked if I were Jewish. I humorously replied: “I could be”. That brought the usual quizzical eyebrow twitch. One of many in recent months; because I have on many occasions and unabashedly remarked that one must be a good Jew to be a great Christian. Not taken very well by my fellow Christian brothers and sisters. So be it. In my opinion: to continue on my Judeo-Christian journey, learning Hebrew is the next logical step. How fast can I learn it? The jury is still out on that one. I speak other languages; so pragmatically I would say: How hard can it be? After all everyone speaks it in Israel! Shalom.