Tuesday, November 29, 2011

what are you waiting for?

We are waiting for peace to break out
we are waiting for flowers to bloom
we are waiting for the moon to come
from behind the clouds of war
We are waiting for the light
We are waiting
and as we wait we sing songs of celebration
We are waiting
and as we wait we hold out our hands in love and friendship…
…and as we wait we dance: we dance with the cold east wind
and the creaking singing branches of giant firs
we dance with the devils
of dust and the angels of clouds
We are waiting
and as we wait we are learning the language
of burning roses and sunflowers slowly turning
toward the sun…
(Carlos Reyes)

I’ve been carrying that above poem around with me for a couple of years now. In our tradition we are beginning the season of Advent, a time of waiting, and this poem seemed particularly salient for that. It’s from a collection called “Poets Against the War.” What really strikes me about it is the “while we wait” part. It reminded me of the words we say after the Our Father at Mass: “…as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.” But in this poem, while we wait we are doing something. It’s an active waiting; there’s motion in our passivity. That made me ask myself this question and I pose it to you too: What are we waiting for? You could ask that question in two ways, first of all as a real interrogative: it’s good for us to define what exactly it is that we are really waiting for in Advent, to remind ourselves again. And the question could be asked kind of rhetorically: “Well, what are you waiting for?” In other words, “Get going!”

A couple of anecdotes came to my mind concerning the beginning of Advent. (I’ve written about them in previous postings.) First I was remembering how when we were at Sabbath service in Jerusalem, and as the service was beginning the whole congregation turned to the door and sang this song (in Hebrew):
To southward I set the mystical candelabrum,
I make room in the north for the table with loaves...
Let the Shekinah be surrounded by six Sabbath loaves
connected on every side with the Heavenly Sanctuary.
Weakened and cast out the impure powers, the menacing demons
are now in fetters.

Rabbi Paula, who was one of the leaders of the pilgrimage, was so excited because this was a song that she had taught her congregants as well. And then this same song came up again a few days later when we were in the town of Zefat in northern Israel. Many of the Sephardic Jews settled there after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in the 15th century, and they brought with them the teaching of Jewish mysticism––the kaballah, especially the teachings of this one man named Isaac Luria. It is this very same Isaac Luria who had composed the song that we had sung the last Sabbath. It’s a song welcoming the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is welcomed as a bride, because she is also representative of God’s shekinah–God’s power. Our tour guide took us to a steep side of the hill overlooking the valley where Isaac Luria’s house was, and told us that every Sabbath people face the direction of that house and sing this song, welcoming the Sabbath as a bride, welcoming the power of God’s shekinah. Rabbi Paula was all excited again and explained to us that is why we all faced that certain direction at the synagogue in Jerusalem––that everyone in Israel, whether they know why or not––sings this song facing Zefat and the place where they believe the Sabbath comes from each week.

There was one other Sabbath custom too that we experienced that very day in Zefat. I was walking down this narrow street that has artisans, artists and craft shops on either side, when suddenly this old man approached me from one of the shops and started speaking to me in Hebrew. When it became clear that I didn’t understand Hebrew he asked me in English if I wanted him to tie the tefillin on my arm. When I looked confused he asked me, “Are you a Jew?” I said no and he said, “Oh, okay,” and proceeded to show me some other things in his store. A little while later two other, younger men approached me and again asked me the same thing, first in Hebrew (I assume that’s what they were asking me) and then in English. This time I said right away, “Sorry, I’m not Jewish.” I think he thought I was actually apologizing because he said, “Oh, that’s alright” and then handed me a booklet about the coming of the Messiah. I was confused about the whole thing so I asked one of our Jewish friends afterward what this was all about. He told me that it was common for people to ask you if you want them to tie the tefillin for you before Sabbath. He said the first guy was probably trying to sell me a set (that’s why he brought me into the store to look at other things afterward), but the second guy was preparing for the coming of the Messiah. The belief among some is that if they could get every Jew to observe the Sabbath faithfully, it would hasten the coming of the Messiah. They’re not just waiting for the Messiah––they’re hastening his coming.

There was one other thing that got mentioned in this regard, and that’s the influx of evangelical Christian money into Israel and Palestine. Some Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ can’t happen until the Jews totally occupy all of Palestine again, and so they are pumping money into the settlements that Orthodox Jews are building in the disputed territories, the occupied territories––whatever you want to call them––the land that the Palestinians hope to have as their state. In this way these Jews and Christians hope to have more “facts on the ground,” as they are called, so that the Palestinians will leave, and then when the Jews have all the land again it will bring about the second coming of Christ. Of course what everyone notes is so strange about that is for the Christians this would mean that all the Jews would convert to Christianity or be killed in the final battle, but that doesn’t stop the Israelis from accepting the money; even though they have different ends they have the same proximate goal. Apparently also certain evangelical Christians are working with some Jews to try to breed the red heifer that is necessary in order to build the Third Temple, which they think in turn would hasten the second coming of Christ. (I assume would also mean the destruction of the Muslim holy sites already on the haram al sharif–the Temple Mound?)

What I was so impressed with about all this is how industrious these folks are. They are waiting, but they are not waiting. And there is this sort of mixed message in Advent for us too. Even the opening prayer at Mass for the first Sunday of Advent has got that tension in it; we pray that God would Grant us the resolve to run forth to meet the Christ with righteous deeds––so that we may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom. We aren’t simply waiting to greet Christ: we are preparing for it with righteous deeds. We aren’t simply waiting to possess the heavenly kingdom: while we wait we are actively seeking to be worthy.

So I ask the question again: what are we waiting for? We’re waiting for the coming of Christ. So, if that’s what we’re waiting for, what are we waiting for? What are we doing to bring this about? How are we going out to meet the Christ like the Jews welcome the shekinah each Sabbath? We’re waiting for the coming of Christ, and while we wait, we are doing righteous deeds. What are we waiting for? What are we doing to be worthy of this coming or, as St Therese of Avila would say, what are we doing to make pleasant shelter for Jesus to dwell––while we wait…? We pray several times every day, “Thy kingdom come!” Well, what are we waiting for? “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” God’s kingdom comes every time the Holy Spirit is ruling over our hearts, every time God’s will is done in me. We pray that we may come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. What are we waiting for? Why don’t we share this divinity of Christ that is offered to us? We hear in Scriptures that we are meant to be participants in the divine nature. What are we waiting for? Why aren’t we participating?

Even more important than facing the direction of Zefat, more important than tying the tefillin and observing the Sabbath, as beautiful as those traditions are, and certainly more important than breeding a red heifer or human rights violations in the name of a dubious interpretation of biblical prophecy, is preparing the wilderness of our hearts. I wish that we could be as industrious about preparing for the coming of Christ in our hearts as these folks are about the coming of the Messiah or the second coming of Christ in time and space. Concentrating on a physical place, concentrating on some kind of definitive break in history or, I think Jesus would tell us, too much concentration on any of the external things is nowhere near as important as preparing our hearts, preparing this house––the house of our very being. And that coming of Christ could take place at any moment, in any place––at evening or midnight or at cockcrow, with the snap of a twig in the forest, like a thief in the night, between your first and second cup of tea in the morning. And while we wait––the words from Matthew’s Gospel some weeks ago––we are “sober and alert.” The images that we use for meditation all come to mind: as the Buddhists say, we pursue enlightenment sitting on the meditation cushion as if our hair were on fire. This waiting is not just a passive thing. We sit in prayer like a cat before a mouse hole––perfectly poised and perfectly ready to pounce at any moment. And––while we wait––we are feeding the poor, clothing the naked, not oppressing the alien, we’re caring for the earth; and while we wait we are kind to each other and honest, while we wait we are doing God’s will, doing the work of God’s kingdom. When we do those things, when we live that way, we are actively bringing about the reign of God, in our hearts and in our world.

So, while we wait in joyful hope, let’s pray once again this Advent season that we would have the resolve to run forth to meet the Christ with righteous deeds, with ready hearts, so that we may be worthy to possess and embody the reign of God.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

thou mayest

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver

I tend to see morality in three stages. First of all there are the Thou Shalt Nots, things that we should not do. I think that we tend to think of morality mostly in terms of them, the Thou-Shalt-Nots. In ancient times, this was only considered the first stage of the spiritual life, the purgative stage of ridding ourselves of bad behaviors. But then there are the Thou Shalls, the things that we should or must do. It's like the yamas and niyamas of Yoga. We start out with the avoidances or restrictions and then move on to the observances. In the Ten Commandments, for instance, there are eight Thou-Shall-Nots and two Thou-Shalls. The Jewish tradition expands them into a system of 613 rules or mitzvot to obey, some positive and some negative, many of them dietary and health codes, purity laws and liturgical regulations. Jesus comes along and narrows them all down to two, and they are both positive: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your soul, and then he adds a second that is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus also emphasizes that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is more important than all those other dietary and health codes, purity laws and liturgical regulations. The ancient Christian writers thought that the surest sign of right relationship with God was charity, agape. And this is what we heard in our first lesson last Sunday from the Book of Proverbs 31. It seemed like it was addressed just to women and wives, but I think that it is equally applicable to anyone: even more important than "deceptive charm and fleeting beauty," and equally important to one’s work being done well are "reaching out hands to the poor, extending arms to the needy." Our circle has to open first of all to include someone beyond ourselves––our families and our friends; and then it needs to open up more and more ‘til the circle of our love and the range of our compassion embrace all we meet. I can say with some authority, especially after this trip to the Holy Land, that I have encountered people in every religious tradition who are outwardly the most religiously observant as well as ardent in protecting their little circle of family and co-religionists, and yet act with great injustice and prejudice toward the poor and the downtrodden, especially people outside of their own tradition or race. This is what the prophets of Israel railed against, and this is what Jesus addresses over and over again.

But then we heard that great parable last week of the master who gave his servants five and two and one talent from the Gospel of Matthew too. Remember it? The one with five made five more, the one with two made two more, but the one with one buried it, which infuriated the master upon his return. And he tossed this wicked lazy servant out into the darkness where there was “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” That parable is suggesting that there is something even beyond what we must and must not do––there are things that we can or may do. I got this idea from a friend of mine who recently told me about this theme in John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.” Steinbeck centers around the Hebrew word timshel as found in the story of Cain and Abel, when God tells Cain that he mayest avoid evil, that he has the power and ability to avoid evil. Steinbeck, through the character Lee, says that this is what makes us great; this is what gives us the stature of gods, that even in our weakness and our filth and our sin, we still have great choice. We can choose our course and fight through and win. We have a marvelous capacity for choice. But I think that that Thou mayest extends even beyond the ability to choose between good and evil. Jesus in this parable isn’t telling us what things to avoid out of a fear, nor is he talking about the bare minimum needed to get by out of moral obligation. He is pointing us to the things we perhaps shouldn’t have avoided out of a sense of fear’ Jesus is pointing toward the can and the could and the mayest.

We learn in the spiritual life that discernment isn’t just a choice between good and evil; it’s a choice for the greatest good, toward the fullness. St Ignatius in his process of discernment is always urging his followers to find the summum bonum, the greatest good. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest, Jesus says. This is an important movement in us, a moment of spiritual maturity. St John calls it the movement from fear to love. I’m suggesting it’s a shift from the end to the fullness. The end of our life is for our life to be full, filled ultimately with the very fullness of God. And I think this is what this parable us pointing to. God has also given us this marvelous capacity for freedom and co-creativity. God has given us this immense wellspring of life-giving water that is meant to well up from out of our hearts. God has given us the opportunity to be participants in divinity, St Peter says.

There is something more––beyond the shalls and shalt nots––for our lives to be full. We need to choose, and we need to choose out of our strength, not just act out of our fear. Make no mistake about it: that choice is a frightening thing, because when we choose to stand on the courage of our own convictions we have no one else to blame. The third servant in the parable avoided blatant evil and he even did something positive in conserving the money by burying it in the ground. But he didn’t take the risk of courage and creativity. I think that if he had said to his master, “I took a risk on something with your money and lost it all,” the master would still have promoted him to a higher position in the household. The crime wasn’t that he didn’t make any more money. The crime was that he didn’t even try, because he crouched down in fear. I was thinking of that Nickel Creek song that I like so much:
You’re staring down the stars, jealous of the moon,
and you wish you could fly.
Just staying where you are, there’s nothing you can do
if you’re too scared to try.

As Nelson Mandela reminds us, our “playing small does not serve the world… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…” We can, we could, we may do great things. That's what gives God glory.

So this all made me take a moment to take stock of my life. Have I been working to rid myself of those things that are harmful to me, that are blatantly objectively wrong? Have I been doing those things I ought to do, which I should do, to fulfill not just the minimum obligations of the law, but the obligations of charity as well? But further than that, am I taking the risks, am I walking on the waters of trust and adventure, and calling myself to a fullness of life, of being all I can be for the sake of the world, for the sake of building the kingdom of heaven, for the greatest glory of God?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

the return of the shekinah

To southward I set the mystical candelabrum,
I make room in the north for the table with loaves...
Let the Shekinah be surrounded by six Sabbath loaves
connected on every side with the Heavenly Sanctuary.
Weakened and cast out
the impure powers, the menacing demons
are now in fetters.
(Sabbath hymn of Isaac Luria)

7 nov, 2011, ben gurion airport, tel aviv

The final moments here in Israel could have gone very badly. There is supposed to be a general labor strike starting this morning at 6 o'clock which will close Ben Gurion airport down at 8. I am leaving at 7:20, inshallah! Just in time. A few folks stayed behind to fly to Jordan today to tour Petra, but their flight already got cancelled so they are having to reshuffle. I was already dreaming up a contingency plan, what I might do if I got stuck in Israel and all my connecting flights home got cancelled... It would have been interesting.

These last days have been very relaxed. Morgie took us way back up north on Friday before shabat and before heading to Tel Aviv. It is considered to be the center of Jewish mysticism in Israel--many students and teachers of kabbalah--and also an artist colony filled with Orthodox hippies, as one of our Jewish friends described them. I was also told by a reliable source that, to my surprise, in spite of the mystics, artists and hippies it's also a very conservative town, some of the most ardent Zionists. We first had a wonderful visit with an American born artist named David Friedman. As we walked into his studio space I pointed to a copy of one of his paintings that was on display at the entryway and said, "That reminds me a little of Peter Max." Sure enough, he told us at the beginning of his presentation that he was inspired early on by psychedelic art and album covers. If some elements of that style remain, he has also evolved a long way. He himself is a serious student of kabbalah and makes great use of its symbolic language, numbers and images. His presentation about his art was just as much a spiritual teaching about the unity of the Divine.

I don't know if I ever saw Morgie as reverent about anything else on this tour as she was about Zefat, and especially when she talked about the Kaballah tradition that grew up in this area. It mostly centers around a man named Isaac Luria. After Jews got expelled from Spain in the 15th century by Columbus' patrons in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, many of them settled in Zefad around Luria, who developed a certain mysticism based on the experience of exile. The idea was that God had actually gone into exile, God had "contracted," as it were, to make room for the created world. And the Shekinah, the power of God who is visioned as feminine, the bride (I need to look up if there is any relation between this word and the Sanskrit shakti, also feminine), had also been separated from the Godhead. And now there were divine sparks scattered all around and imprisoned, as it were, in matter. So there is a displacement at the heart of Being itself, and nothing could be in its right place. The exile of the Jews then stood as a symbol of a kind of cosmic homelessness of both God and humanity. But by faithful adherence to the Torah and careful observance of the Sabbath, Jews could end the exile of the Shekinah. Isaac Luria drew on this experience to teach about the primal unity that had existed before the beginning of time, a unity that could be brought about again, even in one's own body. By the way, this is also the symbol of Rachel's Tomb, God's Shekinah in exile. Some of Luria's disciples used to perform a Rite of Rachel, in which they would get up at midnight and rub their face in the dust, weeping. This would be followed in the early hours of the morning by the Rite of Leah, in which one would recite a passage about the Shekinah's return and union with the Godhead until one could feel her presence in every part of the body.

Morgie told us about the origins of some of the other more common Sabbath rituals that had their origin here in Zefad too, many of them very sexual in their imagery. )Rabbi Paula was barely keeping herself contained as Morgie was talking, because these are the very rituals she has taught her congregants and us, to some extent, on this trip.) The Shekinah and the Sabbath became joined and on Friday afternoons, people would dress in white and process out to the field outside the city to greet the Sabbath-Shekinah, the bride of God, and escort her back to their homes. Every home was prepared like a temple, with bread and wine, candles. And there was a song that accompanied this, composed by Luria himself, the same song that Paula had us all sing both Sabbaths we spent together. Paula reminded us too how when we were at the synagogue with Morgie in Jerusalem two weeks ago, even then we had faced the door. This song is always done facing toward Zefat, from where the bride will come. For one day each week, everything is back in its proper place, a little sanctuary of time, everything back in right relationship. Karen Armstrong adds in her description of it that this Friday night ritual also looks forward to that final return to the Source of Being. We stood out at a spot that was right above where the Jews did their mikvah (ritual baths) and from where we could see the distant hill where Isaac Luria lived.

Morgie took us on a good tour of the rest of the village, sharing stories all the way. "Anything can happen in Zefat," she kept saying as she regaled us with two or three different versions of various events in the history of the town. She pointed out to us a town in the distance that was the home of a great rabbi, and explained to us various songs and prayers that originated there in that region; she led us to two Sephardic synagogues, wonderfully colorful and busy in their interior design, one of which was miraculously actually lifted from its original home in Spain and transported here to Israel. (Anything can happen in Zefat!) She also gave us a tour of the candle factory and introduced us to her favorite Yemeni food shop, the proprietor-cook silent behind his grill wearing his distinctive black and white Yemeni kippa over his dark eyes and jet black side curls, for all the world a Jewish yogi who would not have looked out of place in Rishikesh, incense burning and very hip world music playing in the background. There was a long narrow cobbled street chock full of shops, many of them artist studios or purveyors of fine tchotchkes. Twice I got asked (at first in Hebrew) if I wanted to have the teffilin tied on my hand, once by an old man and once by a young one. When I showed my confusion, they both asked if I was Jewish. When I said no, I was dismissed, not unkindly. I asked Ariyeh later what that was about and he explained to me that they would then either try to get you to by a set of tefillin from them, or try to "evangelize" you toward being a more observant Jew, especially as Sabbath was approaching. Indeed, the older man gave me a tract about the coming Messiah and the signs that would accompany it. I slipped away with Ariyeh and had a scrumptious vegan meal at the kiosk of another American born Jew, this time a woman. We were pretty high in the hills, and it was raining off and on, and had gotten refreshingly cool, then downright cold, so it was nice to pile onto the warm bus and make the long trek down to Tel Aviv for our final days.

I had arrived in Tel Aviv but hadn't seen any of it yet. I'm not sure why, but Tel Aviv felt like a world of difference from the other places we'd been. Even though there is definitely more secular city than sacred in Jerusalem, we had spent most of our time in the old city, I guess, and none of the other places seemed quite as modern and cosmopolitan as Tel Aviv. It's also very new, built from the ground up (though right next to the old city of Jaffa) in the early twentieth century. It made it feel a little like Beirut. It's also a university town and feels like a young town, with quite a night life. Okay, I'll be honest: it felt like Babylon after Zefat and Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Our hotel was only a block from the sea, which was very nice and we all made the most of that. There was also a health food store around the corner and lots of coffee places, a lot fewer people in kippas or kuffis or any kind of religious garb. It reminded me that the Zionist movement in the late 19th/20th centuries was not necessarily religious, but secular and socialist. The focus was more on the kibbutzim than the kippa, more on politics than (or at least as much as) on the spiritual life. I have to keep reminding myself that Jewish is an ethnic group, like Italian or Swedish, that happens to be also a religion, and there is a uniqueness about the wedding of those two that is unlike even Hinduism, I think, though that may be the closest correlative in my mind. The big deal about the Ethiopians who were brought up in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon last century was that they could actually prove their Jewish blood line.

After a sumptuous meal, (do they eat like that every Sabbath?) we had a simple Sabbath gathering with a talk a woman who is an active member of the GLBT community in Tel Aviv. This was of special interest to the group since they were a number of folks from that community who were part of our group as well. But Donna surprised everyone. Only about half of her talk was about GLBT issues; she also was very articulate, passionate and forthcoming about other social issues in Israel: the military and the military mindset, the economic disparity, and racial issues, for instance. We enjoyed her talk a great deal.

The next day everything was optional until the afternoon event, which was highly recommended (nothing was really mandatory. Morgie was leading a tour of the ancient city of Joffa, and I was tempted to go but I wound up spending deciding to spend most of a glorious day alone on the beach, walking, writing, letting things sink in. Our meeting that evening was the beginning of our processing as a group. There was one question that Morgie kept putting to us and we were going finally going to dance around it a little bit: "What makes a place holy?"

I remembered talking to a young monk at a monastery I was vi sting once, who was lamenting about the state of life among the brothers there and struggling with whether or not he should stay, if that was "the right place." He came to the conclusion himself and stated it eloquently: "This is the right place. But we are not the right place." I have come to the conclusion that every place is holy and no place is holy. That was my revelation about the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. It's been a very important theme for me to recall how even after the destruction of the first temple during the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were coming to realize that their worship did not have to depend on a place, and so they developed the synagogue tradition and the closeness to the Word. That didn't stop Herod and his predecessors from building a bigger and better temple, but along the way what might have been forgotten was Jeremiah's prophecy: Behold the days are coming when I make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Deep within their beings I will implant my Law; I will write it on their hearts. And so again this beautiful image of Mary--that's really where the whole Jesus event starts. Her virginity is a sign of a pure receptive heart-soul-home for the Word, received so deeply that it takes root and becomes flesh. And so, to see Jesus in that lineage, the first thing he does in the Gospel of John is relocate the Temple to his very own body. And of course then Peter and Paul understand that all of our bodies are temples now.

What makes a place holy? We make a place holy in the same way we bless something--our blessing God doesn't make God holy: it acknowledges a holiness that is already there, it (here's my favorite word again) "realizes" it, it makes us a aware and our awareness makes it real. Every place is the right place. But we are not always the right place. If we were the right place??--a pure receptive heart-soul-home for the Word??--every place would be the right place, every place would be holy. I remember David Whyte's teaching about Moses, that the big shock wasn't that he was standing on holy ground; the big shock was that he'd been standing on it all along and didn't know it. Doesn't Jacob say the same thing (and Merton quotes it on 4th and Walnut): Truly this place was holy and I did not know it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

the golan and the galilean

There are those who sing the song of their own lives,
and in themselves they find everything.
There are others who sing the song of their own people,
who attach themselves with a gentle love to the whole community.
There are others who reach toward more distant realms,
to sing the song of all human beings.
Then there are those who link with all existence,
with all God's creatures, with all words
and sing their song with all of them.

And then there are those who rise with all these songs in one ensemble,
and they all join voices:
the song of the self,
the song of the people,
the song of humanity,
the song of the world...
(Rav Kook, from Orot HaKodesh)

4 nov, 2011

There is/was nothing much to report about Wednesday, thankfully. We travelled from Bethlehem to Nazareth, with a quick stop at Manger Square and the church of the Nativity, plus a little side visit to a mosque across the street from it, and then made our way up to the Galilee.

The landscape changed as we drove north, hilly and low chaparrel, lots of vines and orchards. We were running parallel to the security wall in many places, and Morgie was explaining to us some of the dynamic about the Arabs in Israel, the difference, if there was any, between those on one side of the wall and those on the other. For many it is a subtle distinction: many on either side consider themselves to be Arab Palestinians, though some of them are also citizens of Israel; while others are in land they consider their own that is occupied. (Actually, there are also some on Israel's side of the wall who probably consider themselves in occupied territory as well.) The ideal of a bi-national, bi-racial state is nowhere near a reality since Arabs in Isreal are treated like second class citizens (I overheard one young Arab-Israeli woman say, "Worse than second class! Third class! Fifth class!" Apparently Moshen Dayan said of the Arab population, "We will treat them like dogs so that they leave." So Arab Israelis cannot serve in the military, do not get the same social services (though the details of that escaped me) and, the biggest thing of all is that it is officially a Jewish state with a Star of David on the flag. Morgie suggested how different things would have been if from the beginning Israel had welcomed the Arabs in their midst as fellow citizens instead of a resident combattants, and if the Star of David stood for the Jewish ideals of social justice rather a symbol of a nation only for Jews. But, then again, that is the same kind of battle between left and right everywhere, isn't it? And the Israelis in 1948 were justifiably scared. They were under attack on all sides by united Arab nations.

Our first stop in the Galilee, in an Arab village right outside of Nazareth, was actually at an Arab school. It is only two years in existence, and the principal, Dier Habiballah (the name means "beloved of God") very proudly gave us a power point presentation and a video (made by his son), and tour of the school grounds and a delicious lunch. He then took us up to meet the imam at the White Mosque there in the village, who gave us a short talk, very eager for us to hear about what I would call the moderate face of Islam, which he kept referring to as "real Islam." He was a kind, well-educated man, and very gracious in his welcome. The Mr Habiballah took us on the tour of his little village, which included a quick stop at the local olive oil plant and a stop at his own home. From the verandah of the fourth floor of his home (what he referred to as the penthouse), we had a stunning view of Mount Tabor at sunset. This is the "high place" mentioned in the gospels where tradition has it that the Jesus' transfiguration took place. Ziggy and I really wanted to climb it mainly for that reason, and at least two others wanted to climb it for the cardio exercise. It rises 1900 feet up suddenly in the midst of a valley. So we started hatching a plot to escape from the rest of the group and do so the next day.

We started out the next morning visiting the Basilica of the Annunication in Nazareth. For a tourist-pilgrim spot I liked it more than I thought I would. It's a relatively good-looking modern building, albeit poured concrete, with these wonderful images of Mary from all over the world on display in the outside plaza as well as on the interior walls of the basilica itself. I had a good time walking around with Rabbi Paula, talking about the various images of and titles for Mary, especially when we got to the one that showed Mary as "the ark of the covenant." Imagine speaking with a rabbi about that, and explaining what that meant, how Jesus was Word made flesh, how Mary's virginal womb was there to receive God's Word so deeply that it took root in her. Paula reminded me again that the word for womb is the root of the word for mercy--rahamin, which of course is the same Semitic root for the Arabic words ir-Rahman irRahim. And so that gives a whole new meaning to calling Mary the "mother of mercy." I talked too about how the problem is when we stop at Jesus, and Meister Eckhart's beautiful image of "the eternal birth of God in the soul." Doesn't Jesus say, when someone praises his mother, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it? (It was quite poignant the next morning that when Lori was leading meditation she taught us a dhkr in English: "Out of the womb / of my human heart / the divine is born / into the world.")

There is also some archeological digging going on around of the old churches that had been built on the same site, and a little spot they call "Mary's kitchen." There is also the well there in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary (no well is actually mentioned in scripture, of course).

Then we went up to the old synagogue. I loved that spot a lot. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the place where Jesus gave his inaugural address as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter 4, quoting the propeht Isaiah--The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me with good news for the poor... to announce a year of favor...--but this particular synagogue surely dates back to that time, so it could have been and certainly was a good ecxample of what that synagogue would have looked like. Just like at the other tomb in Jerusalem in the church of the Holy Sepulchre that was not Jesus' tomb, I felt more moved by this, to see something actually untouched and historical rather than some place all decorated up to make it appear holy. It is a very simple stone structure. We sat around on benches and Lori led us in song, which sounded magnificent in the resonant space. I really could imagine Jesus sitting on the step, after rolling up the scroll and returning it to its place, at the front delivering the perfect sermon, short and to the point: Today the scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing. What did that mean to him?!

Then we got back on the bus and headed north and east toward the Sea of Galilee. Morgie had told us several times that we were going to stop there for a short time and then head up into the Golan Heights for the afternoon. I was already feeling like I didn't want to go to the Golan Heights. I had seen them from the other side in Syria last year while having breakfast with Shiekh Kuftaro. I remember him pointing to it and saying, "That is ours." By then, whether I would have admitted it or not, I was a little fed up with Israeli politics and I wanted to focus on the spiritual part of the pilgrimage, especially now that we were here in the Galilee. I had my map out and was circling the names of all the towns that I recognized from the gospels: Kfar Kana, Cana (where the first miracle was performed in the Gospel of John, turning water into wine), Naftali, Korazim (Chorazin), Kadarim (the land of the Gadarene demoniac), Bet Zayda (Bethsaida), Migdal (Magdala), Kfar Nahum (Capernaum). This area Morgie kept calling "the holy triangle," where Jesus did the bulk of his ministry. I noted how far we felt from Jerusalem at this point, psychologically and geographically­­--what a long walk it would have been for Jesus to go there when he did. The route he would have taken according to the gospels would have had him going east and then down the Jordan River valley and then west through Jericho, all land that is now the occupied territory. The landscape leading up to the seashore was beautiful, verdant, rolling hills.

We got our first glimpse of the sea just north of Tiberias and then ended up at the church of the Primacy of Peter, the spot where legend has it Jesus called to his disciples from the shore and cooked them breakfast after the resurrection, as recorded in the Gospel of John. As we got off the bus and Morgie was instructing us in logistics and giving some background of place, she pointed off to the east and mentioned the Golan Heights again. They were just there on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. I didn't realize that they were so close. I was happily surprised again by how simple the church was in this spot, with a large rock jutting out of the floor marked with a sign that read, in Italian, Mensa del Signore, "the Table of the Lord." It seems a little arrogantly Roman to remember the primacy of Peter at that particular church, but still, since it's under the custody of the Italian Franciscans as so many Christian sites in the Holy Land, not too surpirsing. There was just a little section of beach where everyone gathers, and Morgie had Ziggy read from the story of that famous breakfast from Gospel of John. It was as if it was choreographed: just as Ziggy read the part about Jesus telling the disciples to cast off to the other side of the boat, a fishing boat came into view on the horizon. That was pretty cool. Then we were set free for about 45 minutes to wander around.

I was surprised to find that nobody was venturing further north on the shore away from that little section of beach, but I did, and I found a couple of wonderful spots to sit or squat and gaze out over the water. There I felt very close to Jesus, and I could easily imagine what he might have felt like squatting there himself, gazing out at the far heights, at the tranquil sea, at the birds dipping in and out of sight. Every now and then I glanced up and looked across the water and thought to myself, "Is that really the Golan Heights?" I couldn't somehow take it in, that that area that was so highly contested could be right there, abutting my sea of tranquility. So I put it out of my mind, and I had what I think were the happiest 45 minutes yet in Israel, hopping from stone to stone to cross rivulets and squatting at various places and reading scripture. It was there that I realized this simple thing: Jesus is not in buildings for me, and not even in iconography that make him Pancrator. But Jesus is very real to me squatting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, just as he was for me wandering the suqs and climbing the hills of Jerusalem more than in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus was the new Temple and passed that on to us. God isn't in buildings, or at least not just in buildings: God is in us and in all of creation, and in our whole world sacred and secular through us, the priests of creation.

I eventually wandered back to the spot on the shore where the other folks were. Toward the south there was a fenced off section that was overrun with wild flowers and a whole flock of sparrows doing a swooping ballet. You could almost guess where Jesus would get the images he used in both Matthew and Luke to convince his hearers not to worry about tomorrow, what to eat and what to where. I kept thinking one could easily believe in the benevolence of the universe in that little spot in the world.

We piled back on the bus. Ziggy and I with a few others had by that time fully hatched our plot to take a taxi back down from Tiberias to Mount Tabor to climb, but both our two Jewish mothers, Morgie and Paula, at this point got on the microphone and, as tour guide and organizer, discouraged us greatly from pursuing it, so we were going to head into Tiberias with the others to spend the afternoon at a spa with hot tubs. We passed by the town of Magdala--no wonder Jesus knew Mary the Magdalene so well. He was always hanging out right in her neighborhood! Morgie told us that we would not be going up to the Golan Heights after all because the weather was so bad, raining off and on, and overcast so we wouldn't see anything anyway. So instead she pointed it out to us yet again and launched into an explanation of its strategic importance, and how the Syrians were launching rockets down on the valley below so that Israel felt impelled to take it, and the whole explanation again of defensible borders. At this point I was flipping through my bible looking for more and more mentions of geographical places in the area, trying so hard to hold on to the feeling of closeness to Jesus that I had felt at the sea shore, as if I were understanding something about Jesus and the gospels for the first time, or at least in a deeper way. I so badly wanted Morgie to stop talking about the Golan Heights, but she carried on all the way into Tiberias where she set us free to find lunch. I walked off by myself for a good long think, because I knew that this was actually a real problem for me. As I told Morgie later, it was as if two people I knew separately--Golan and Galilee--suddenly walked into the room together, and I said in surprise, "I didn't know you guys knew each other." But it was even more primal than that: I simply couldn't hold those two things together, the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee.

It's two days later as I write this, and I'm still sad about it. I can still imagine what it felt like to squat on the seashore and look out over the tranquil water and sense the benevolence of the universe. But the underlying theme of this whole trip has been one of going from the sacred to the secular­­--from the Temple Mound to the Holocaust Museum, from the Western Wall to picking olives behind the security wall, from Sabbath services to a protest march, from the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to occupied Hebron and everything crashing at Abraham's Tomb, from the refugee camp to Rachel's Tomb. I was used to it and even kind of marveled at the brilliance of the planning of the trip. But I just wanted one place to be just holy, to be set apart and protected, to be separate and holy, to be kadesh. And a part of me is still saying it, "How dare the Golan Heights abut the Sea of Galilee? How dare Mideast politics taint my experience of Jesus?" I guess I too am still caught up in the "spurious illusion of a separate holy existence." But if there is any point to Jesus' life it's that nothing is separate, and we have to hold the beautiful and the ugly together and not lose hope. Almost every time the gospels tell us Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray by himself, someone comes and interrupts him and calls him to come and give himself in service; and he never complains nor hesitates. We have to be able to hold the two together and not let either one go, and not lose hope.

Everything is holy now.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

rachel's lament

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice,
nor truth that passes over injustice in silence,
nor moral virtue that condones it.
(Tadeusz Borowski)

2 nov, Bethlehem

We had the most intense day of the whole trip yesterday. Dave had warned us that it might be hard to be in the refugee camps in Bethlehem in the morning, and that it would be even more intense to be in Hebron in the afternoon, even giving people a clear option to opt out of the latter and spend time at the suq in Bethlehem instead.

Actually the morning was relatively easy. We went to a place called WI'AM, the Palestianian Conflict Resolution Center. It was founded and is directed by a Christian gentleman named Zoughbi Zoughbi, who is incidentally married to an American woman and spent some time living in the States. They are absolutely commited to non-violent means of conflict resolution at WI'AM, from small family and community issues all the way up to the immense issue of dealing with the Occupation. Zoughbi's best line of the morning, which we all really liked, was, "We want to empower the weak and bring the powerful to their senses, not to their knees." He quoted Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and various other voices from the civil rights movement freely during his introduction to us. The context in which they work: economic depression, the stagnation of the peace process, environmental degradation, domestic violence, traumatized children (at one point Zoughbi said, "We don't deal with post traumatic stress: the trauma is not 'post'; it's ongoing."), youth problems and the general demoralization and factionalism, including emigration, depression and hopelessness. In the midst of all that, he was another great prophetic voice and figure, and so articulate.

One of Zoughbi's young assistants, Usama, then gave us a tour of the refugee camp. The center actually is right on the edge of it. We had to cross right past Rachel's Tomb. Of course all of this is also done in the shadow of The Wall, the security wall which zigzags its way through Bethlehem, and its location in this particular spot is emblematic of the arbitrary nature of it. Rachel's Tomb is in the middle of Bethlehem but the wall snakes around it so that Israelis have access to it but Palestinians don't. It's very ugly, and has made an eyesore out of a holy site. Rabbi Paula was explaining to us that this is the place where women have come for centuries to pray for safe pregnancies, since Rachel had so much trouble conceiving children with Jacob. She is also the only one not buried with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rabekah, Jacob and Leah (not sure if Bilhah is buried with the others...) so, Paula said, Rachel is also a symbol of the shekinah being exiled from Jerusalem. "And now it is encased in concrete," Paula lamented. I was of course humming "Rachel's Lament" all through the morning.

The refugee camp was nothing as I had imagined. This camp dates all the way back to 1948, mind you, when folks were first routed from their homes in what is now Israel, firmly expecting to return. But the war turned into occupation, and tents gave way to concrete structures, and dirt paths turned into paved streets, and people continue to add on and on to the structures so that there is quite a bustling shanty town built up. But all around are graffiti and signs announcing what village people were from, and how many came from that village and what particular year. Now deep into the heart of urban Palestine as opposed to our experience in the country picking olives last week, we saw lots of signs of bold opposition to the occupation, even frequent images of Che Guevara and the words "Libre Palestina!" The inside of the security wall was covered with colorful graffiti. The hardest one to read was, "There is no hope and so we wait to die.” We felt safe the whole way, and even cautiously welcomed by people we passed on the streets. Usama even led us up onto the roof of someone's house so we could see the security wall from above. He was a little more agitated and eager to tell us stories of Israeli abuse than Zuoghbi had been. We headed back down to the center after about an hour and Zoughib and staff gave us a sumptuous lunch, and then we were off to Hebron.

Usama came with us, and we met the young man named Sami who was to be our guide for the afternoon. Sami was quite a talker. After the bus dropped us off near the old city, Sami gave us quite a walking tour into alleyways and deep into the suq. His aim was to show us all the spots where Israelis have built settlements right in the heart of the city. We were told that the settlers in Hebron are among the most aggressive and extreme. They've actually been there since 1968. The most famous of all is Baruch Mazul who was from Brooklyn, and another Dr Baruch Goldstein who was responsible for a massacre in Abraham's tomb in 1994, 29 Muslims killed and over 300 wounded. Along the way, it wasn't clear why at first, we started gathering up more and more young people, college-aged, following us. We found out after a while they were all in training to be guides like Sami was. I actually felt like we were pretty well protected in case of any kind of incident or altercation. At several points we stopped right near where the guard posts were, and Sami would hold forth at length even at points gesturing toward the armed soldier in the watch tower and then toward the settlement areas that are now closed off to Palestinians. It really is a little bizarre: in the middle of the market, suddenly an alley would be blocked off and there would be chain link fence overhead to protect passersby from the items that the settlers were throwing down from above from the upper floors that they had taken over, for example. There were sevcral streets where no Palestinians could drive because they were where the Israelis were. The ratio of soldiers to settlers was incredible. I kept wondering how and why these Israelis would even want to live there let alone raise children there. They had to be the most hardcore who wanted to make, in a phrase we kept hearing, "facts on the ground." But I kept asking myself, "Who are the real prisoners here?" That is when, of course, I really got to feel what it means for a land to be "occupied."

Then we got a real object lesson. Our last stop was to be Abraham's tomb, which is also where tradition has it Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Joseph are honored if not actually buried, a holy place to all three traditions. The first little tense moment came for us visitors when the turnstiles locked up at the entry way when only about a third of our group had gone into the plaza in front of the tomb. The turnstile of course is run by two young Israeli soldiers. We finally got through in two more groups; we were by that time a group of about 40, us and our young Palestinian hosts. And then there was another security check with a metal detector, manned by three young Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles, and one older Palestinian man. It all happened so fast I could barely register what was going on. A few of us got through and I had just said to someone next to me, "These are like teenagers with guns!" Then one of the Jewish women in our group got stopped. She was wearing her Star of David visibly as a necklace. The soldiers made her go off to the side and asked her if she was Jewish. She replied yes, and then young woman soldier started scolding her, talking to her pretty nastily. I could see she was getting upset and so I sidled over nearer to where she was (I am not sure what I would have done) but then Rabbi Paula came up and started speaking to the soldier in Hebrew and found out that Jews had a separate entrance or, to say it another way, were not allowed to go in that entrance. So Paula found out where that other entrance was and started walking off that way, as did her husband and several others, particuarly the Jews in the group. We had been told that the building was now split in two, on one side a synagogue and on the other a mosque, so I guess it sort of made sense to me. And I guess I figured, since the Israelis were having the Jews go to another side, that they were somehow getting special treatment and we would meet up with them inside. As I say, it was all happening so fast. I kept asking the young Palestinians, "Who's rule is this that Jews can't come in the Muslim-Christian side?" I'm not sure I ever got a straight answer, and our Jewish friends never did go in. Unbeknownst to us that went in, they were so shaken by the encounter that they all stayed outside waiting for us to emerge. We don't know what they would have seen if they had gone in, but we did find out that there were six days a month for Jews and six days a month for Muslims and Christians, and it seems like this was a Palestinaian rule after the massacre, about which Sami told us a number of times in great detail when we were in the mosque. We only found out gradually just how hurt and upset the ones who had stayed outside were. Some thought we had abandoned them; some wondered why we didn't make a decdision as a group about going in; some even felt set up by our guides.

We had quite a de-briefing about the whole incident that night after dinner. I felt kind of nauseous sick abut the whole thing, especially thinking that they thought we had abandoned them or done something that intentionally left them out. It might be a little taste of what Jews (and their friends) felt like during the early days of the Nazi regime. It's also what the people of this region have to live with every single day, situations that are loaded with ambiguity and separation, fear and mistrust, pitting neighbor against neighbor. So we really got to feel what it is like to live in an occupied land.

Paula's husband Arieyh is probably the most well read and informed person in the group when it comes to the occupation. He has followed it since he was a young Zionist himself in the 1960s. The bus driver somehow couldn't find us after the whole debacle, and so we were all left standing in a little plaza waiting for nearly an hour, getting colder and more and more tired, but Ariyeh, who is no sympathizer of the settlers, contiuued to debate with Sami and Usama, not disagreeing with them in general but correcting some of their facts. Sami, for instance, kept saying that the first intifada was non-violent, but Ariyeh and Paula were living here then and they remember much clearer. Their discussion, right there in the middle of the street, got pretty heated at one point, Ariyeh being very assertive without being aggressive, but Sami and Usma firing off example after example from their own experiences. I kept remembering the Italian phrase that I learned at General Chapter with the Camaldolese, una bufera di parole--it was like we had experienced "a storm of words," and by that point I just couldn't take any more in. But I shall remember for a long time as I got out my Bible on the bus (when it finally found us) and started reading some evening psalms and scriptures, behind me I could hear Ariyeh asking Usama questions about his own experience, and Usama talking about the two times he had been arrested and tortured. At that point all I could do was hold them both in the silent space inside of me, which I could barely find, and I knew I had no other answer, that indeed there were no easy answers, only fallible human beings caught up in a terrible position that is only escalating in its complexity.

So, again all the more poignant being here, this morning we were all abuzz with this news, as reported in the Washington Post:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday ordered accelerated construction of 2,000 homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and nearby West Bank settlements, his office said, a day after thePalestinians gained membership in a major U.N. agency [UNESCO].
Netanyahu’s move, along with a hold on the transfer of taxes collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority, were described by Israeli officials as initial responses to Palestinian moves to gain recognition of statehood at the United Nations.
Ordered them! It reminded me of the story in Exodus when Moses and Aaron went to ask Pharoah to let their people go, and Pharoah instead said that they had to make bricks without straw. The oppressed become the oppressors. I'm just a monk and a musician not an expert at foreign affairs, but I must say from my perspective, even just as a voting American citizen, I am convinced that we, the US, are on the wrong side of this argument. And we need to let our leaders know that we must stop Israel from building more settlements, especially if they are using our money to do so. They are only making a bad situation worse.

Some of our group didn't like this, but Dave passed out a statement from Kairos, an organization of Christian leaders in Palestine that lists the facts about "reality on the ground" as a result of the occupation and then states unequivocally:
...the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

an oasis of peace

If love manifests itself in you,
it has its orgins in beauty.
You are nothing but a mirror
in which beauty is reflected.

When we left Jerusalem we headed straight to Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. The name means "Oasis of Peace." It is a fascinating and hopeful experiment: an intentional community, a village, of Jews and Palestinian Arabs (all Israeli citizens) living together. Its orgins actually lie in an interfaith group that met in Jerusalem in the early 1970s led by a Hungarian-Italian Franciscan friar named Bruno Hussar. His interfaith gatherings drew more and more people, many of them who were more interested in talking about the political situation than about religious issues. As our host, Daoud, explained to us, one day somebody said, "Well then, why don't we live together?" And so they did. Bruno got the French Trappist monks of Letroun Abbey, who were very well off (according to Daoud), to donate 100 acres of their land, which is conveniently locatred between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two familes moved onto the property right away, living in campers trailers in the beginning. By 2010, some 60 families had come to live in the village, with an equal number of Jews and Arabs. Daoud told us that they always maintain the equal balance; the Arabs are divied between Christians and Muslims but there is not quota for those two groups. Eventually the village plans to have 140 homes. There are over 100 families signed up wanting to be a part of it, which is a sign of even more hope, that so many Israelites would be interested. Daoud explained to us the rigorous application and acceptance process that includes psychological tests and handwriting analysis(!). As their literature says:
The members of WAS-NS are demonstrating the possiblity of coexistence between Jews and Palesitianians by developing a community based on mutual acceptance, repsect and cooperation. Democratically governed and owned by its members, the community is not affiitiaed with any political party or movement. WAS-NS gives practical expression to its vision through various branches.

Daoud also told us that everything in the community is geared toward education. There is a school, and many more families even outside the village want their children to be a part of that, more than the school can accomodate. The school has a fascinating format. It is totally bi-national and bi-lingual. Jewish and Palestinian teachers each speak exclusively in their own langauges to all of the children. So from an early age "the children begin to develop an awareness of their identity, culture and traditions." In this they also aim "to create an atmosphere of openness and tolerance that encourages children to understand, accept and appreciate each other." There is also The School for Peace there that sponsors international conferences, often focusing on formation of youth and women's issues. And then there is the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre in memory of fra Bruno, and with it an interesting globe of a building called the Doumia-Sakinah, this latter being specifically Bruno's brainchild. The Doumi has no religious markings at all, just an open lightsome space with carpets on the ground. Several people in our group asked about shared spiritual practice. There doesn't seem to be any in the community itself; folks go to nearby towns or all the way into Jerusalem for the mosque or synagogue, but this space can be utilized for anything.

Unfortunately we had little time there at Neve Shalom. We had arrived just before dinner on Sunday night, and only had our meeting and a tour with Daoud the next morning before leaving again. So we only got a little taste, but we were all in agreement that if there were another trip we'd like to begin and end there.

As we left Neve Shalom, a few of the folks asked if we could stop at Letroun monastery to shop in their wine store. It was a convenient stop right off the road, so we did. I didn't need to shop and I've seen plenty of monks and monasteries, so I wandered down to an outdoor plaza where there was a good sized group of students hanging out. I was mainly attracted to the sound of a drum and some singing. Some of the kids looked up as I approached, maybe a little warily, but I waved and smiled. They weren't really singing anything particular, just kind of goofing around. I went back up to where our driver Mahmoud was and asked him to ask them if they would sing something for me. He yelled down to one of the girls something like, "Tell them to sing something in Arabic for this American guy, he's a musician..." and the girls led me back over to the group and explained to them. Some of the kids greeted me and some asked my name and where I was from in English, and then they launched into song with the guys passing the dumbek around one to another. What an experience to be standing in the middle of these kids, the unabashed joy and abandon as they were singing and waving their arms and clapping. It was like being in the middle of an Arabic music video. They were very forward and friendly. At one point a tall guy grabbed my hips and started moving them to encourage me to loosen up and dance, I guess, and then a girl grabbed me by the hands amd pulled me into the middle of the circle and made me dance with her. At one point one of the girls said, "Now you sing!" I was trying to think what I would possibly do to match that energy, and I wasn't sure if they were Muslim or Christian at that point, though eventually one of the girls said, "Now we sing something in English," and launched into a Praise and Worship song that seemed pretty anemic by comparison to what they had been doing.(We later ascertained that they were Palestinian Baptists from Nazareth.) Anyway, they got distracted by their own exuberance at one point and I never had to do anything.

Our exact schedule was a bit up in the air due to some communication problems, but we pulled into Bethlehem, moved into our hotel (The Shepherd's House) and then piled right back into the bus so that Mahmoud could take us to someplace to eat. It was after 2 by that time and we were getting a little crabby, but still polite. Mahmoud loaded us into the top floor of a restaurant, which at first seemed a little overhwhelmed by the onslaught but stepped up to the plate and spread quite a banquet for us. We relaxed over the meal and then started drifting out of the resturant. I was among the last to leave because I didn't want to wander around the streets carrying the guitar, and the waiters were already cleaning up. When one of them saw the guitar case in the corner, he said, "Who's is this?" And he was very anxious to see it, so I pulled it out. He had his and his friend's picture taken posing with it, and then Lori and I sang "The Drink Sent Down" for them. Another wonderful moment.

But the best was last. We visited the Catholic Relief Services youth center in Bethlehem, called Youth Voices for Community Action. The woman with whom Ziggy had had contact, Hanna, was not there when we first showed up, and it was quite impressive that the kids stepped up and took right over. There was one young man a little older who was in charge, Basir, I believe his name was, and was shuffling kids around to do what had to be done. There were several young folks standing at the entrance to the second story room to greet us in English and tell us their names, and as soon as they got us seated, they read to us some introductory remarks from their brochure about CRS, and then announced that they had a program for us and then we would sing for them. Lori and I were prepared for this, but what we weren't prepared for was what they had to offer us. Someone pressed "play" on a huge boombox, some very loud Arabic music started playing and the kids launched into a folk dance, totally choreographed, that must have lasted over 10 minutes. And they were wonderful, just jubilant and beautiful. And there were more boys than girls dancing! Part of it seemed to be a kind of courtship dance, some parts just guys, some just girls. It was wonderful. Then Lori and I got out two chairs and sat in the middle of the semi-circle. We first sang "The Ground We Share" for them, which I thought would change the pace a little. They liked it a lot. But then we did "Bismillah" and as soon as Lori opened her mouth, they were in love, and they clapped and sang along and smiled. It was surely the best performance of that song we have ever had. When it finished, one of the young guys asked me, "Why did you decide to use these words 'Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim'?" so I got to tell the story of Francis and the Sultan again.

By this time Hanna had arrived. She gave us another little talk about CRS and her work, and then asked one of the young men to come up and talk about the specific work of this particular center. He spoke about cultural things, treatment of women, promoting Palestinian folk culture and non-violent approaches to addressing conflict, and one other thing he kept mentioing over and over again--trying to get young kids not to use bad language, as I understood, because of its connection to violence. We had a little bit of time for questions and answers both ways. One in particular stuck out. Ziggy asked them why they were so commited to their education, and one of the young women answered straight-away, "For the future and developement of our country." I have come to find out that Palestine has a very high rate of educational level, and also make a high percentage per capita of the PhDs in the US. The problem here in Palestine is the "brain drain," educated people leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. If these kids stick around, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Then they asked us for another song. I got them in a circle and taught them "Pray Peace." It was a blast. And then they danced for us again. This dance was even more exuberant, if possible. These kinds of musical encounters--in parks, in restaurants, in upper rooms of youth centers--are as good as, maybe even better than, performing on stages in front of large audiences, the interaction person to person, the cultural exchange. It was even more deprerssing to hear then on the news last night that after Palestine was officially accepted into UNESCO, the United Nations cultural arm, the US backed up Israel in cutting off funding. That news was so real to me that I took it personally. All I could see were those kids' exuberant faces and wonder what was going to be accomplished by them getting punished.