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CONFESSION OF A GENTILE IN JERUSALEM:
THE PARADOX OF THE FIVE SHEKELIM BLESSING
For a pilgrim freshly on the ground, the City of Jerusalem is all at once awe-inspiring
and mind-boggling. Jerusalem is a city of things holy and profane (I use this word
in its neutral theological sense - meaning that which is secular opposite to sacred
and not meaning that which is obscene). Furthermore, Jerusalem is a city of polite
paradoxes and sanguine contradictions, in the most lethal sense of that word.
She will welcome the stranger with open arms and at the same time the wandering
soul can find the iron gate barred tight in certain places. As we shall find out, she
can also be literally spell-binding. Jerusalem is perfect ground for the
theologically inquisitive and politically sensitive.
Onwards with my tale of discovery and learning. An early lesson given at Saint
George's College is mundane - a crash Course 101 on surviving an encounter
with a Jerusalem merchant. All the novices are instructed to never pay the
asking price but to practice the fine art of bargaining with the best bazaar manner.
Unlike making a purchase at Walmart, we are told that while driving a hard bargain is
expected by most holy city vendors, but to beware of a vendor taking offense after
he has reduced the price at the shopper's request without a sale resulting.
We are left with the caveat - nothing is for sure in Jerusalem.
So out onto the streets of Jerusalem! The first photo you see on the right is the
iconic Guevara Mini Market and Sandwich Shop on Nablus Road near the
Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem (code for the Palestinian side of the city).
A local Muslim entrepreneur with a Mao-Marxist leaning towards Ernesto Che, that
Great Salesman of Communism? I will leave the reader to draw his or her own
conclusion on this image but know that Idid enter this establishment and pay
7 shekelim (shekelim is the correct plural form of shekel or more correctly,
New Israeli Shekel, NIS and 7 NIS is equal to about US$2) for a big bottle of mango
drink. I forget all about the admonishment about bargaining but how does a
pilgrim go about haggling for a bottle of juice?
The next photo is of a well-stocked, warmly lit spice shop inside the Old City with
the proud store attendant looking on. By clicking twice on this photo and viewing
the super enlarged image, one can spy a miniature Dome of the Rock sitting atop
the spice pyramid and a larger wood model of the same on the left of the mound -
sure signals that the owner is Muslim. Unfortunately, I cannot convey to the
reader the fragrances and odors which permeate this spice shop - just use your
Over the days, I actually get a few opportunities to hone my bargaining skills and
the art of saying "No." The obvious traveller will be accosted on the street by
numerous vendors of all ages (men and boys) pushing tourist souvenirs. One quickly
learns to say "La" (Arabic for "No") or "Lo" (Hebrew - both Arabic and Hebrew are
Semitic rooted languages); I just mutter Lo-A to be versatile or Nah or something
like that when the fellow really gets on my nerves. Upon reflection, it is a rather
sad situation as the flux of tourists has dropped drastically since the two
intifadas, an unsatisfactory economic situation upon which both contenders,
I hope, are agreed.
Moving on to the more sublime. The next photo shows a Hasid getting ready to pray
before the Western Wall. In addition to the shawl, he is also wearing tefillin (also
called phylacteries, from Ancient Greek phylacterion, form of phylássein,
φυλάσσειν meaning "to guard, protect"). These small cubic boxes constructed
of leather contain small scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses of protection
from the Torah, and when strapped to the forehead is called a shel rosh and
another called a shel yad when it is bound onto one's arm. While the Torah
only mentions the wearing of teffilin twice in Exodus and twice in Deuteronomy,
the practice is further preserved and expounded in Talmud and rabbinic teachings.
Access to the Divine Presence before the Wall is segregated according to gender -
men on the left and women to the right, they being separated by a low fence.
Gentiles may also pray at the Wall. I see more women than men during the times
I was before the Presence. Obviously, the separation of the sexes is not rigidly
enforced as can be observed in the fourth photo - the little ones always seem to
be able to get away with it. Click on the photo, twice, and you will see that the
young soldier to the right of the little girl is slinging a bullpup - the latest
generation of 21st century assault rifles - to be more specific, the IMI Tavor TAR-21.
(The visitor is constantly reminded that Jerusalem is also a hill country fortress
scarred by war and her on-going story is one that is over-laid with the history
of empire gained, lost, regained by many at the point of the sword, of cycles
of liberation and oppression).
Tel Jerusalem is like the proverbial onion - one big built-up mound layered with
traditions and storied with diversity. Examine the plural golden onion domes of the
Church of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives near the Garden of
Gethsemane (built by Czar Alexander III in memory of his mother). This Russian
Orthodox church competes with the Dome of the Rock for attention from the visitor
and provides a fitting image of the layering of faiths in Jerusalem. I again try to
convey this feeling with a view of the singular Dome of the Rock on the Temple
Mount as framed through a leaded glass window from the Church of Dominus
Flevit located on the upper western slope of Mount of Olives (a small Franciscan
Church famous for its ancient tombs and several ossuaries - bone boxes;
see also Luke 19:41-44, cf. John 11:35). True to its name, the sanctuary is
shaped like a tear-drop (see thumb-nail inserts). The Christian architect (the famed
Antonio Barluzzi) saw his opportunity to make a point and I am conveying his
boldness via a photograph - but one should also note the tower of the
Leonardo Hotel breaking the skyline on the left and the construction cranes
working to add even more worldly layers onto an already religiously stressed city.
The three photos concluding this column are of the holy places of Islam that dominate
the Temple Mount - a telephoto close-up of the full moon on the golden Dome of the
Rock (the Noble Sanctuary which houses the sacred stone from which Muhammad,
the Prophet of Islam, ascended into Heaven during a night journey astride the winged
horse Al-Buraq), a photo of the black dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque that is on the farthest
edge of the Mount (opposite to and never to be confused with the Dome) and a photo
of the front of Al-Aqsa. Note that the Moons atop both these domes present the Full
Moon in contrast to the Crescent Moon found on most other mosques (I am yet to
find a satisfactory answer to this discrepancy). Unfortunately, full access to both
these holy places is presently permitted to Muslims only and no photography
is permitted anyone inside (more later on how I lost a wager on this).
Now I will tell of the Five Shekelim Blessing and how I regret what I did. One day,
while walking along the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Brother Jonathan, our SSJE
Chaplain, and I were grabbed by the arm by some strangers. I will narrate what
occurred to me. I was physically confronted by four persons in black coats and
black hats with broad brims. One put both hands on my left arm and another dropped
a heavy object on my head. The other two stood rigid guard and I had no way of
escape. The first then tied my wrist, albeit with a thin red string and only on my left
wrist and with a single knot. The other placed his hands on the thick book atop my
head and commenced to pray aloud. When I realize these uncharacteristic assailants
me some form of blessing, I too give my thanks to God.
After a string of words barely understandable to me, they are done. But not yet - one
asked in quite recognizable English for a donation. Playing tourist, I found it
impossible to deny his request. Reaching into my side pocket, I found a shekel
coin and gave it to him. It is five shekelim. The response was "Some paper, please."
The smallest paper NIS currency was 20 shekels, which I had in my wallet in the other
pocket. Again playing tourist and having become seasoned after a few days in
Jerusalem, I had a stock response to this ploy. "Lo- sorry," and I brusquely
wedged myself out of the little circle of black-clad men and strode briskly away
without looking back. When I caught up with Brother Jonathan, I gave him a
wry look and said mockingly - "That was a 5 Shekel Blessing," - thereby
trivializing the incident.
Upon more sustained reflection, I regret trivializing the incident. It seems that
I had been afforded the Red String Blessing of the Kabbalah, a benediction
traditionally associated with the Matriarch Rachel, affectionately venerated
as Emeinu (Our Mother) whose tomb may be visited at Bethlehem. This blessing is for
protection against many bad things, including the Evil Eye. It had been given in all
solemnity and without a price being placed on the blessing a priori. Whether
Kabbalah is a Jewish cult (again I use a word in its neutral theological sense,
i.e. to mean a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference
to its sacred rites and ceremonies) which emphasizes the mystical in conjunction
with the Tanakh, the blessing appears to have been shared with me in good faith
and given to me to wish me well. Who am I, discerning Christian pilgrim as I am,
to impugn their good intention or to assign an ulterior motive?
Given the diversity and complexity that teem in Jerusalem, I confess that the last
thing one should do is to trivialize anyone or any liturgy one experiences there,
especially when offered in good cheer and in peace, and poignantly, in a gentle
spirit of inclusion. Shekhinah, as appearing in the Hebrew Bible, is grammatically
feminine and is associated with the dwelling Presence as in the Temple in
Jerusalem; some have recently pointed out that the Koran also speaks of sakina,
i.e. the tranquility or peaceful presence of God. When one is in the Holy Land,
he or sheis quite apt to connect with the Divine Presence in the least assuming
of places and at the most unexpected of moments. More of this later.
Charleston C. K. Wang, 5/6/2010. Please click on each photo for larger view.
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