Monday, September 29, 2008

On the edge

I wrote the below last week and posted it on another blog, but, with the holiday approaching this evening, I think it's still worth repeating here.

The last time I lived in Jerusalem, I took a walk one hot day from the Old City back toward the south where I lived. I stopped in a little park on the top edge of a steep ridge not far south of the Old City, and sat down to look at the beautiful view of the valley and heights to the east. I took my computer out of my backpack to write. But, suddenly, I realized somebody was behind me. I looked up to see a young Arab boy with a donkey laden with goods. He spoke to me. I didn't understand his words, but after a bit I came to understand he wanted the soda I was drinking. I handed him the bottle. He drank what was left in it, threw it on the ground and then, with his donkey, disappeared over the steep lip into the valley and the village below.

That brief, almost surreal, encounter has stuck with me and often comes to mind. It's a reminder that Jerusalem is a place of edges -- a place where many different things meet. It is not just the most intimate and complex of borders between Palestinian and Jew. It is also, very much, a place where First World and Third World meet.

The heights around the Old City, and the stunning views from them, are a powerful visual reminder that this is indeed an edge space. Yesterday, I rode my bicycle up to one of those heights -- up to Mt. Scopus, the site of Hebrew University where Minna was having her last day of Ulpan . After spending some time with Minna, I rode the bike to the east side of Mt. Scopus and took in the views -- of desert, of Arab towns and even of the Jordan and the Dead Sea -- that one can see in the deep valley and the mountains beyond. Here's some of what I saw:

In the last picture, you see a monument that dedicates the area there on the east side of Mt. Scopus as a National Forest in the name of a Canadian donor. There are many such monuments and forests around Israel in beautiful spots like Mt. Scopus.

But, as you can see from the trash in the foreground of the below picture, you often find garbage and disarray in the same spots.

I understand this as another manifestation of how Israel is very much a place of edges and boundaries -- ones that are also very much still in flux. What might be a National Forest, today, may be a housing development or a place for a highway tomorrow. A Jewish settlement might become an Arab town, tomorrow and vice versa.

After leaving the area around Hebrew University, I headed south to where this hospital just north of the Mt. of Olives.

It turns out to be run by Lutherans, which is a reminder of home (where my boss and two of my co-workers are Lutheran Clergy).

After leaving the hospital, I descended from the heights of Mt. Scopus and the Mt. of Olives down to the deep valley that runs on the west side of the Old City. I was a bit confused when I got down to the bottom and took a wrong turn into the heart of an Arab town (Bab Ez' Zahara). I was conscious that tensions are fairly high right now. Ramadan is still going on (it ends this coming Monday, the same evening that the first of the Jewish High Holidays -- Rosh HaShannah -- begins). And just the other day there was an attack where a Palestinian driver rammed his car into a crowd of Israeli soldiers at the northwest corner of the Old City. I wasn't feeling frightened but I decided to turn around, nonetheless.

I then managed to get my bearings and ascended a steep and congested road to the very northeast corner of the Old City. The marketplace that iscentered around the Damascus gate spills out all along the road there. I had to get off the bike and walk through the crowds. Finally, I got past the crowds and took a little rest around the New Gate, where I entered the Old City briefly and headed for the Jaffa Gate. The picture at the top of this blog post was taken not far from the Jaffa Gate. That's the Tower of David on the right above the woman's head. A bit of my trusty bicycle is visible on the left.


There was a 'border dispute' of another sort not far from our apartment last night as well. Someone -- presumably a right-wing Israeli extremist -- set off a pipe bomb outside the house of a left-wing Israeli historian. The historian Zeev Sternhell was, thankfully, only lightly wounded. So called Jew-on-Jew attacks are relatively uncommon here (and usually not fatal), but they are far from unknown. (Here is a New York Times story giving some of the background.)


Another edge we are on here is the one between seasons. I did not see it (even though I was only a few blocks away!), but Minna saw rain, today (even if only the lightest of drops). It is a sure sign that the long (rainless) summer is over.

It is no accident that the High Holidays come at this time of the turn of the seasons. Rain -- or the lack of it -- was a life-or-death issue for the ancient farmers of this little land that, unlike great Egyptian empire to the West and the great Babylonian empire to the east, has no great rivers to irrigate the crops even when the rains fail. So, it is not surprising that the themes of life-and-death that characterize Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur found a place in those ancients' minds and hearts at this time of year.

Just being in Jerusalem -- just being in this place characterized by edges -- brings those themes to life for me. Life seems so much more precious to me here. More intense. It's the thing I love most about being here.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that the journeys to the 'edges' that you make in this New Year be ones that bring you to the side of life. And to growth and joy.


Here, by the way, is the approximate route of my ride:

Bigger map

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