Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem
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YALA, a crazy idea for peace

Young people from across enemy lines came to a parched landscape to test the waters of reconciliation

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The children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael can both agree on its name: Khamsin. This kind of heat that shimmers, that blows sand in from the deserts, from North Africa, from Arabia, this kind of heat that pushes the sweet, deep blue away from the sky, turning everything the color of a moth’s wing. The color of dust

And all of us had blown in, too, at the invitation of YALA Young Leaders — from Morocco, from Tunisia, and Sudan. From Rochester, New York, by way of Algeria. From Tel Aviv, a kibbutz in the sweet green valley of northern Israel, from an Arab village in the Galilee, from Nablus, from Bethlehem, from Hebron, and from the Mount of Olives, from all these places across the region, we arrived with the dust storm as it blew through Jordan to talk about peace.

“Crazy Idea for Peace,” YALA posted on Friday as the participants arrived in Jordan, across checkpoints, against the odds of missed flights and surly bureaucrats. “Let us young people of the Middle East actually meet each other and find out for ourselves who is on the other side of all these borders and divides that keep us apart! Doesn’t sound crazy to you? Yes, you’re right, what’s crazy is that it’s not yet a reality.”


But this weekend, it WAS a reality.

How do we breathe life into the dream of peace and coexistence when the landscape is so scorched, so parched and dry?

Yala, let’s talk online. AND in person.

And there we were in a resort on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, choked with dust, the air baked to a crackle, where the geography of earth hits its lowest point, beside a sea that can sustain no life that we know of, where the salt makes us float like corpses in the water, this is where YALA Young Leaders brought 12 participants from the Middle East and North Africa to meet for the first time. This was our oasis where six men and six women traveled from all over to speak about how to speak… when semantics can choke us like tear gas, like smoke from a smoldering rocket, like dust

Throughout the weekend there were seminars about online activism. There were personal discussions. There was a meditation class, and a movement seminar. (I was invited to speak about writing and how to build community through blogging and new media.) There were meals together, and beer and hand-rolled cigarettes by the pool, and throughout it all, the heat, that heavy oppressive heat bearing down through the dust.

But the program was only two days — and in two days, how much could be accomplished? We have history under our fingernails with the dust of this place, the stories of our grandparents told to them by their grandparents. Such history embedded in our DNA.

And how polite we are.

Yes, the participants knew each other for months online, but still. Meeting in person is different. And when we speak the language we don’t dream, or mourn or love in, can there really be a sudden realization, a connection, that flash of lightening?

In theory, yes, maybe, but… I wondered.

And then night fell, the last night for the participants, before the Israelis would head back to the Beit She’an checkpoint, the Palestinians through Allenby, and the rest to the airport in Amman where they would fly to other cities, across time zones.

The organizers invited all of the participants to bring something from their culture to share with the group, and we sat outside, beneath the heavy sky, and shared things from our worlds that we brought with us, through airports and checkpoints, through the desert to our oasis in the middle of a dust storm.

We ate soft donuts from Tunisia and sweet cookies from Morocco. We held pieces of sticky sandalwood, our fingers scented sweet with resin, before we burned the chips in a glass ashtray.

The ashtray broke, the heat too strong.

“MAZEL TOV!” someone shouted!

“Breaking glass wards off the evil eye,” another said.

We passed around a water pipe, the smoke rose in a cloud over us. There was zatar and soap from Nablus, we learned how to wear a Keffiyeh. And then it was time for the Israelis to present.

“This is a book of Sabbath prayers my mother designed,” Inbal said as she held up a small white book. “And these are candles we light on Sabbath,” she added as she placed two glass candle holders on the table.

And I felt sad we had missed Shabbat — we were all there in Jordan at sunset the night before, sitting by the pool, actually, as the color of the water deepened with the dusk. We were drinking beer and solving the world’s problem in the spirit of peace and wholeness, but still, why didn’t someone think to light candles?

By now Shabbat was over, above us hidden behind the dust clouds, there were probably a million stars shining bright. We couldn’t see them, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

“We could sing Shalom Aleichem,” Moriya suggested. “Even though Shabbat is over, the song could be really nice.”

And it could:

Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Come in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.


Bless us with peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.


May your departure be in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

So, we sang. Because Jordan. Because YALA. Because why not?  Seven of us, all women, our voices bending together, flowing together in the hot Jordanian night, the smell of the sandalwood and the nargila surrounding us, the air off the sea suddenly cool against our faces.

And while I sang, I was back at my parents’ Sabbath table, the three of us holding hands in a chain that seemed unbreakable. I was back there, in the glow of our Sabbath candles, my mother’s long fingers like the roots of a begonia plant in my right hand, my father’s warm, rough fingers in my left, we were together.

But, I was there, too, beneath the sky, in a country that was, until not that long ago, the sworn enemy of the State of Israel, with all these other people who had made this journey with faith and hope through the dust storm to this place to create this oasis.

Come in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

And then the sky opened, without a sound. We lifted our faces to the skies as the rain fell. We kept singing, this ancient melody that we learned from our grandparents, who had learned it from their grandparents, we kept singing, and as we sang, the others sitting with us hummed along — others who worship in a different language, others who were raised to believe we are their enemy, others we have grown to fear as well.

And the rain fell.

Bless us with peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Tomorrow, would come too soon, and we would leave. And the ground where we’re all from is hard and blistered. But there are rains that come, that wash away the dust and the cracks in the earth, rains that soften things, that give space for life to grow.

May your departure be in peace, messengers of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

And In all my life — in the years I’ve spent on earth stumbling and dreaming, there are these sacred moments I’ll never forget, even if I live so long that the rest of my memories blow away with the wind: The first time I heard my newborn babies cry. The first time I kissed the man I love. And this night, beneath the sweet, cool sky when we implored the angels, and each other, to come in peace, bless us with peace, and leave in peace.

For as the lightning flashed across the sky, as our faces were illuminated in the light as white as day while we sang, I saw it: Possibility.

And maybe you can see it, too.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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