An American in Israel

On my flight back to America from Israel, a small brunette girl in a unicorn t-shirt put her plastic box of markers in the back pocket of the seat in front of her while she colored in her book. Though they weren’t actually markers, they were clear plastic pens in various hues of landscapes and sunsets and rainbows, she called them as much.

The older man who occupied the seat in front of her decided to recline the menial amount in which airplane seats are allowed and upon doing so, there was a loud crunching sound as the thin plastic box became trapped between the back of the seat and the metal bar of the seat tray. The small brunette girl’s mother, calmly yet with the concerned inflection of a Kindergarten teacher, asked if the man could lean forward for just a moment so she could remove the box and silently, he did as she asked. As she pulled out the box of pens she also called markers and took inventory of their condition, she saw they’d been cracked, all of them, in the middle.

In a somewhat nasal yet even tone of voice, the mother said to the man, “Oh, they’re all broken,” implicating him. She inspected the colorful damage a second time. “It’s broken them all,” implicating the seat. Pulling out a bubble gum pink pen cracked around the middle but still in one piece, she said again, “They’re broken,” implicating maybe herself. The silent man then turned back around to face forward, unbothered and apathetic to the plight of the small brunette girl’s pens she called markers and as he did, the calm-but-concerned mother told her daughter it would be alright.

I’d seen this man and his dowdy wife in the terminal earlier in the day. They were Americans, casually dressed but with accessories that exposed their income bracket, and as I and dozens of other travelers waited to check our luggage, they blew by in a huff. He was silent and straight-moving like the bow of a ship but she, her many layers of feather-light sweaters draped across her shoulder as if she’d just sat for a renaissance painting, barked, “Well, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying,” as she stomped by, sounding supremely peeved and more than a little offended.

A few minutes later, I met the “she” who’d been so curtly referenced. A tall Asian woman in a red skirt suit which costumed her as an airline employee met me and my passport as we reached the front of the line. She was beautiful in a way I’m sure could launch a thousand ships if that sort of thing still happened and she spoke with a posh British accent, her refinement as pristine as her meticulously-applied red lipstick.

I realized the dowdy American woman didn’t understand her because she either wasn’t listening or, more likely, didn’t want to. I, an American with the residue of a Texas accent on my tongue that sneaks out in high-pressure situations, had no issues understanding and speaking with the woman in red. It struck me how we make a choice to understand each other or to not. It was also an acute insight into the week that preceded my flight back to America. For the first time, I’d visited Israel and had the opportunity to spend a day in Jerusalem, a place I’d dreamt of since first seeing its depiction on Sunday School felt boards.

In the weeks that led up to my trip, I tried to mentally prepare for what would be a tearful retreat full of holy moments and peaceful reverence, my heart open to receive and reflect, and when the day finally arrived, it began at the Mount of Olives. More specifically, our day began with meeting a camel at the Mount of Olives, a moment so perfect and romanticized, it felt both too good to be true and unquestionably meant to be. Then, I felt my breath catch in my throat as I looked out over Jerusalem for the first time. My eyes welled up, overcome by being there. By being.

This has happened only a few times in my life—the first time I looked up in the nighttime technicolor fever dream of Times Square and the moment I turned a corner and the Eiffel Tower emerged from behind the Parisian trees like the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park come to mind—and I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of being in a place that was, just a few eye blinks before, somewhere I’d known only from stories. In an instant, it was now a part of my experience and history, alive and tangible.

Though it was an impossible attempt, I stood in silence and tried to fully gulp it down. Densely packed, the gold-covered Dome of the Rock and the white tips of buildings and churches and temples and mosques reached upward as if to gasp for air, the perimeter wall acting as a sort of rubber band both holding the city together and compressing everything within it. I could’ve surveyed the horizon for hours, sitting alongside the locals selling plush camels and Jerusalem-branded tchotchkes and listening to the tour group from Italy, understanding nothing they said but everything they felt.

It was a tough moment to live up to but the nearby Garden of Gethsemane did so. Walking its pathways, I got the feeling the gnarled and knotty olive trees knew what happened there and had kept themselves in a state of quiet prayer ever since. It was a simple place, not wild with fanfare or photo ops, but a place where reverence seemed buoyant. It epitomized everything I imagined the Holy Land would be, checking all the boxes and filling me with thankfulness for being able to see it with my own eyes.

Then we entered Jerusalem.

It’s at once the city you want it to be and the city you in no way expected. The tight quarters of the winding white-stoned streets feel, to some degree, like largescale movie sets, yet there I was, walking among them in their tangible realness, an active participant in the hustle and bustle. Meandering through rows of markets, underneath calls to prayer and bells tolling, a choir singing in Portuguese in a Christian church on one street, an Orthodox Jewish teacher leading his classroom of young male students on another, sublimely disoriented visitors asking for directions around every bend. It’s cacophonous. It’s overwhelming. It’s somewhat marvelous. But it’s not what I expected.

My Pentecostal upbringing made me think, for reasons unknown, visiting Jerusalem would feel like one big Upper Room experience. Maybe there wouldn’t be spontaneous tongues of fire hovering over tourists as illustrated in the book of Acts, but I imagined each sacred site would excavate profound truths and illuminate practical faith coming to life. That’s not entirely what happened.

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Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. More photos at www.instagram.com/ryancbrinson

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site at which it’s believed Jesus was crucified on the cross, and I knew it would be a heavy experience. For obvious reasons, the crucifixion section of the Easter musicals at church was my least favorite—I much preferred the parts with healing the sick and the end with the empty tomb and the angels singing—but it was important to me to visit such a hallowed and historical place.

Inside the entrance, people knelt and kissed the stone that maybe-sorta-kinda-possibly could be where Jesus’ body lay after his crucifixion; an exercise in believing if Jesus touched it, it was now holy. That’s big faith. It’s also a little bit of ritualistic mysticism in my opinion but hey, go big. We then saw the rock on which it’s believed the cross stood, nestled under a beautiful, if a bit busy, ceiling covered in stars and cherubs. It’s a beautiful church steeped in a history that long out-reaches its thousand years, but as we moved on to see more of it, I became distracted by a huffy Orthodox priest who busied himself by chasing down anyone wearing shorts and ushering them out of the church.

I don’t remember seeing a sign about not wearing shorts in the church but even if there was one, it was jarring to witness how unwelcoming and traditional to an exclusionary degree this priest’s behavior was. I simply didn’t understand.

I tried to remind myself it’s a different culture so it’s not going to look like what I’ve grown up knowing as churchgoing decorum. That’s part of why we travel in the first place, to see the world, differently. To that end, just because we’re different doesn’t make one right and the other wrong. However, I wondered what Jesus, the one for whom the church is built and to whom people come to pray, would say about such a spectacle.

Even if you divorce the faith aspect of who Jesus was and simply view him as a teacher, his time on Earth was marked by hanging out with a crowd the religious folks didn’t view as worthy. He was, to a very real degree, a counter-culture figure who talked about people having access to God without the rituals, that there need not be a boundary between God and man, and his biggest platform was to love and take care of each other. So, as I wandered over to the place where some believe is the location of his temporary tomb, I asked myself, is this even what Jesus would have wanted? This rigidity concerning the terms and conditions for who can come in? These Orthodox men seemed to be as exclusionary as the religious men Jesus spoke less-than-highly-of 2000 years ago.

Still, it was fascinating to see the places in which these tradition keepers believe to be the cross and the tomb’s locations. I tried to put aside the image of the Orthodox priest arguing with an Arab man about whether he could stay inside the church despite his wearing shorts on the single hottest day in the history of mankind, but I couldn’t let it go. I simply couldn’t understand that sort of behavior.

I left the church to sit outside in the shade. Looking up at the entrance, I could see what’s known as the immovable ladder, a small wooden ladder that’s rested underneath a window since the early 1700’s. The reason it sits there isn’t for any practical purpose, nor is it in an architecturally unreachable spot thus preventing its removal. It sits there because no one can agree to take it down.

Since Israel has such a concentration of religious sites, there’s an agreement that nothing at any site can be moved, rearranged or altered without the consent of the other religious orders with whom the site is shared. In the case of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that means the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Christians and Ethiopians all have to agree on any and every change. Because they couldn’t, the ladder has sat in place for centuries. I didn’t understand that.

I understand the need to agree—what’s meaningful to one group may not be as meaningful to another and much like a dorm room, you’re sharing the space with someone not of your choosing—but it’s a ladder. I read that Pope Paul VI said the ladder was a visible symbol of Christian division and truly, when you realize it’s sat there for nearly 300 years simply because no one can agree on moving it, it’s pretty laughable. And embarrassing. When we moved on to shop in the markets, I resigned myself to the fact that the silly little ladder would just have to remain something I would simply never understand.

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The immovable ladder in Jerusalem. More photos at www.instagram.com/ryancbrinson

When we got to the Western Wall later in the afternoon, I was again taken aback, this time by the fact men and women aren’t allowed to pray next to one another. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, it’s a site that serves as the epicenter of Jewish Orthodoxy after all, but as I looked at the partition between the men’s side and the women’s, it took a lot for me to stand there. Rules everywhere, antiquated rules, and this one railed against my most basic sense of equality.

Still, I was standing beneath this mighty ancient wall that’s stood since the B.C. days of Herod the Great, the sun’s light reflected off of its whiteness to an almost blinding effect. That’s an amazing moment. The light made it difficult to look up for very long so I started looking at the people around me instead. A few feet away, an Orthodox Jewish boy who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12 faced the wall, Torah in hand, passionately reading the scriptures aloud as he rocked back and forth. I watched him for a while and thought: I’m sure he wouldn’t have understood the prayer services of my youth either and would be just as culture shocked. The emotional jumping around, the colored lights, the rock band—that stuff wasn’t necessary either though it was often implied to be so. To some degree, our reliance on emotional experiences was as unhealthy as their reliance on stringent traditions.

Jerusalem is a city that serves as a reflection of the past, at times a distorted reflection but a refection nonetheless, but I left scratching my head at how little it reflects the whole of Judaism or Christianity specifically. It seems to be a city that’s comfortable with upholding and preserving an archaic past. Having said that, the conservative culture of Jerusalem lies in direct contrast to the modernity-embracing culture of Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, everyone was covered in shawls and wraps despite it being satanically hot outside but in Tel Aviv, the locals looked no different than those in Austin or another southern city during the summer. Restaurants and bars were alight long into the nights and the beaches were full of easy-going families and friend groups wearing next to nothing as they basked in the setting sun. One evening, I marveled as I watched four extremely fit men play what I learned is FootVolley, a volleyball/soccer hybrid in which you can’t use your hands to volley the ball to your teammate or over the net. It was wildly impressive to see them play against the backdrop of the sky kaleidoscoping from bold Lisa Frank shades of orange and red into pinks and purples as the sun set beneath the ocean.

When I first landed in Tel Aviv, before my day in Jerusalem, my cab driver was chatty. As he drove, he wanted to know all about New York and I, in turn, wanted to know all about Tel Aviv. It was an easy exchange, a tit-for-tat speckled with laughter and answered phone calls which came through the speaker in a language I didn’t know. Halfway to the hotel, he pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and got out of the car. When I turned to see what he was doing, he was urinating off the side of the road, just as I imagine Paul did on the Road to Damascus. Though I didn’t quite understand the roadside potty break, I understood him entirely. I don’t mean linguistically, though that was essentially true as well, but I mean I understood who he was. He was kind, he provided me with WiFi off his phone so I wouldn’t feel disconnected and stranded in a foreign country, he was jovial as he talked about his home in Romania, and he gave me tips on the cheapest and quickest way to get into Jerusalem the following day. By the time I got out of the cab, we got along so well, I half expected him to hug me. That would stand in direct contrast to the future interactions I’d have with many Israelis that week.

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Sunset in Tel Aviv. More photos at www.instagram.com/ryancbrinson

As someone raised in the Bible Belt, a place where Evangelicalism and patriotism have mutated into one entity, I was fed a steady diet of it being our duty to support Israel. No matter what, we are on Israel’s side and God ordained America for this purpose. This ideology comes from Genesis when God is talking to Abraham and says, “I will make you a great nation….I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” The “you” in that verse references the descendants of Abraham so it stands to reason “nation” means the grouping of people, not a modern day government, especially when you consider the last part of the verse that reads, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” [Genesis 12:2] The emphasis is on the people, not a governmental establishment, but that’s not what I was taught. I was taught supporting Israel as a country is a nonnegotiable part of being an American Christian.

Of course we see this not just in churches but during national elections when politicians trot out their support for Israel as a way to remind people of faith vote for them. It’s often used as a silver bullet to seal the deal and we’ve seen what happens when a politician dares voice concern or even outright lack-of-support for the country of Israel. They are pounced on, called a traitor, labeled anti-Semitic and told to go back to the country from whence they came. So imagine my surprise, if you can call it that, when I saw that Americans are not perceived as the saviors I’d been told for so long we were. As a matter of fact, at some point every day, I was met with, “Oh…Americans…” from a server or a host or a store owner or a taxi driver. On top of that, “Oh…Americans…” was usually followed by a dramatic downgrade in the quality of service we received. This isn’t to disregard the happy, kind people I met along the way, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced the feeling of being on the outs simply because of where I was born. Every day, because of these interactions, I was confronted by and understood a little more the insidious nature of privilege, prejudice, and propaganda.

I found many of the locals could be fairly rude and pushy but that was also the case when I visited Singapore earlier this year. What passes for rude in America may not pass for rude somewhere else, we’re different and we just have to deal with that, but it was jarring how the more Orthodox the man, the pushier he was. On more than one occasion, I was pushed to the side or cut in front of by someone whose clothing served as an outward signifier of their faith. There’s a palpable air of frustration and almost angry entitlement, no doubt a biproduct of centuries of conflict and bloodshed, their land and monuments and sacred spaces being taken over and traded like pieces on a horrible Monopoly board. That frustration is legitimate but it was nonetheless eye-opening to feel such pushiness from people whose most fundamental religious foundation is peace.

It’s not that I expected the country to be some sort of utopia, but I imagined I’d feel unsettled because of the geo-politics, not the people. The region being equally as famous for its political unrest as for its historical heritage, I was warned by multiple friends and coworkers to “be safe.” As it turned out, I never felt unsafe.

The militaristic nature of that part of the world was evident at every juncture, most identifiably on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The denizens of the 4:30 train to Tel Aviv were locals heading home from the airport, tourists moving from one city to the next, and 18-year-old members of the Israel Defense Force. Though I wouldn’t say it was relaxing to be surrounded by soldiers with semi-automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders or sitting in their laps, the combative air coming from devout Orthodox men was far more unsettling to me than a rifle on the arm of a teenager in combat boots.

Along the tiny winding streets, among the claustrophobia of a crowded market, and beneath the salty ocean water as it crashed onto my feet, my understanding of the world was shaken and spread; understanding biblical stories in the context of where they took place, understanding a part of the world I’d never seen and therefore couldn’t truly grasp, and understanding people. People who cling to traditions forged over thousands of years as a way to maintain order and structure. People who desire to protect their places of worship as a way of maintaining their connection to God. People who find themselves in a foreign country confronted by unfamiliarity. People who’ve never known life without fighting to retain and reclaim their heritage. People who spend Shabbat drinking margaritas on the patio of a Mexican restaurant with their friends rather than staying home. People with histories from all over the world, with backgrounds from all over the religious spectrum, and with various opinions on modesty and prayer and family and vices, all sharing the same human experience. How divine.

The beaches were beautiful, the history was magnificent to see and touch, and I spent hours laughing with my best friends over wine and hummus, something that felt just as sacred as anything else on the trip. We stayed up late into the night talking about what we’d seen and heard and felt, and in those conversations, we found perspectives, many of them. My life and my concept of an inclusive, not an exclusionary God, is quite opposite from much of what I saw in the Holy Land and yet, perhaps that was the point of it all. The uncomfortable moments full of question marks and puzzled looks and aggressive newness forced me to understand, or at least attempt to. That’s what I brought home from Israel, that and a small camel carved from the wood of an olive tree.

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The camel who greeted us on the Mount of Olives. More photos at www.instagram.com/ryancbrinson

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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