Stranger in a Strange Land: Israel, Pt. 1

When I left Israel in April, everyone told me I would be processing it for months, even years. I didn’t want to believe them. I wanted it to be a nice tidy package by the end of summer: here’s what I learned, here’s how I grew, my three-point essay, my expert reflections on the conflict. I journaled a little and wrote some poems, and all I could say was to echo U2’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”: 

But I couldn't sleep after what I saw
I wrote this letter to tell you the way I feel

Oh I wish you were here
To see what I could see
To hear…

Now it is October, and I am finally sitting down to sort my thoughts and memories into a semi-organized piece of prose. I think this will be an overview, more theological, and later I’ll write about my experiences in the schools and how that relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first day we are here, we wait for everyone’s Covid tests to come back negative and then we take to the streets to see the main attraction of Nazareth: the Basilica of the Annunciation. Ringing the courtyard are depictions of Mary and Jesus from countries around the world. Most are mosaics, and all are beautiful. It is my first taste of what will be one of the most meaningful parts of Israel: its distillation of the global church. My brothers and sisters from all over the world have come here. Like the Jews facing the temple or the Muslims toward Mecca, the hearts of so many Christians turn toward this place. 

But I don’t dwell on those ideas much that first day. Mostly I am thinking about how everything is so small here—the houses, the roads, the cities. I wonder how many people can fit here. How can this skinny sliver of land contain so much conflict and power and influence? I look at a map, and the West Bank extends into the already-small territory like a butterfly wing. 

Trash skitters along every road but it doesn’t smell. Some days I explore Nazareth, up alleyways, through apartment complexes, stumbling upon some ancient church as I make my way back down the hill. New York has given me comfort with getting lost, but also it is hard to get lost in this town because once I find the Basilica, I can find my way back to our apartment. And the Basilica is the heart of everything. 

The second full day is Ash Wednesday and I read T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” alone in our little patio, with the rooftops of Nazareth visible above the fence.

…This is the land which ye 
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity 
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance. 


The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

What he says about our lady and this land means a lot more after going to the Basilica.

Jerusalem skyline at night; photo mine

The days start to blur together. Everyone is so happy to see us because we mean that the tourists are coming back, that Covid is ending. We are like the first birds in a migration that was delayed. 

At a literal hole in the wall, I buy a pizza for six shekel and watch the dough slide toward me down the oven conveyor belt. The Arabic owner watches us Americans with amusement and asks me: “Which is more important, interest or humanity?” It takes me a bit to understand what he’s saying. By interest he means money. “Doing things for interest is what causes all these wars,” he says. “We need more humanity.”

He laughs at us for speaking Hebrew—I didn’t realize that Nazareth is an Arabic town, that all our Hebrew learning is not only unhelpful here but unwelcome. Instead he teaches us a goodbye in Arabic and then gives me a little shove, in a friendly way, to show that he’s done with us. 

When he finds out where we’re from, he laughs and says, “Oh, you’re from America? What does that matter?” 

One night, before we have purged the jetlag from our systems, we are taken to a cave. Our tour guide Michael found it, back when he had just come to Israel from Kansas and was living in a kibbutz. He had heard some old stories and knew that this cave must be here. He dragged his friend with him. They almost died as they squirmed through the tiny tunnels, unused since the first few centuries. Now he brings groups to it and tells stories of the Jews hiding from the Romans. 

The cave is really a series of cisterns connected by tunnels, designed only to be used when the alternative is slaughter at Roman hands. Either way, it is a death, because you have polluted your cistern, your sole source of water in this dry land. And when you go into the cave, there is no guarantee you will ever come out. Michael tells us of people who stayed in them for weeks, months, in the utter darkness.

I had somehow forgotten that, after Christ, the Jews were still here and still persecuted. I had heard of the diaspora only in positive terms—Christianity being spread to all the earth—and never as the era-shattering cataclysm it was for the Jews.

Michael leads those of us who want to into a smaller cavern and turns off his flashlight for thirty seconds. I wish it had lasted longer. He says, “Some terrible things and some very happy things happened in these caves. It’s like Israel. Some of the happiest and most terrible things have happened here.”

Lesson: wet limestone is very treacherous.

And the Sea of Galilee is very beautiful. 

On my first bus ride to Jerusalem, I read some of the Psalms of Ascents. I am from America, and I have hiked in the Alps, so these mountains feel a little anti-climactic. 

Then we dump our things off in our hostel and walk through Jaffa Gate into the old city, and the magic happens. It reminds me of when I stepped out of Port Authority into New York City when I was eighteen. I remember the blast of the hustle and bustle, the energy shooting into my veins, the absolute certainty that I had to be here. Stepping into Jerusalem’s old city was similar. It was love at first experience. That may be because it was what I expected Nazareth and other cities in Israel to be like: cramped, covered streets lined with stalls selling everything you could want. Covid hurt the shuk in Nazareth, but not in Jerusalem. At least, not as much.

It is Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat. At one point a group of Jewish men pass us, dressed like the Orthodox Jews I see in the city, and on the either side are Muslim men and women selling their wares since we are in the Muslim Quarter, and of course here I am, an American Christian. The three groups pass each other by, and I marvel at it. 

Later when I go up on the Temple Mount, there are Israeli and Arabic soldiers guarding it together. Under their watchful eyes, groups of elderly American Christians take selfies with Gethsemane in the background. At the end of our trip, Ramadan starts, and fights start breaking out, some near places where we had stayed just weeks before.

I don’t understand this place. It is always on the verge of bubbling over, a scalding cauldron whose burns can last for centuries, and yet that is not enough to keep people away. A girl on my trip says, regardless of what you believe, when you come here you have to acknowledge that something here is real—whether in Islam or Judaism or Christianity or all three. All the blood that has been shed for this chip of a hill, how can it just be a matter of perspective or culture or human society? 

When you stand on the outside and look up at the ancient walls, crowned now with minarets, the largest Jewish graveyard in the world behind you, golden churchtops glinting in the fading light; when you walk through the crowds and feel the energy and tension and longing in every sweaty soul; you cannot rationalize, anthropologize this away.

There are olive trees growing on the Temple Mount. In the shade of the breathtakingly beautiful Dome of the Rock, they gnarl roots around old stone. Through the openings in the walls I can see the Garden of Olives across the valley.

I don’t know why it surprises me so much, that there are trees growing up here.

olive trees on the temple mount; photo mine

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried. I am a Protestant and although recently I have begun to appreciate more the importance of physicality and place, I cannot shake my iconoclastic upbringing. I do not care to touch the slab where Jesus lay or kiss the stone that anchored his cross.

I believe the presence of God is now in his people through his Spirit, and so this place is still sacred to me because of the sheer number of Christians who have walked through it, each of them bearing the same Spirit who dwells in me. This place matters because it has held so many of God’s saints. It is meaningful to me because it is meaningful to my brothers and sisters.

We visit the church on a tour of Jerusalem. We could all tell that it was supposed to be a meaningful tour, but it is early in the morning and there is an emotional fatigue that creeps into a program like this. As we walk along the Via Dolorosa, we are silent, poster children for the caffeine-deprived. Then we go into the church and come out again, and suddenly we are all talking. Our tour guide notes it. Regardless of your theology, whether your denomination is represented in there, he says, there is something about this place that touches you. 

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a mosaic. It is of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, which one day becomes Mount Zion. In Hebrew, the Akedah: the binding. It brings tears to my eyes when I see it. I read about the importance of this passage in a systematic theology class last semester. In Israel, I borrow an ebook version of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion so I can reread these words, as I stand upon Mount Moriah, whose dirt has known so many sacrifices:

So Abraham received his son back from the dead. He received him at the outermost limit of human experience, and because of this we perceive that the gifts of God come from a realm far beyond our manipulation, our imagining, our expectation, our deserving. to have faith in God,  to “fear” God as Abraham did, means to trust God totally and to put oneself and one’s life into God’s hands totally, even when the fulfillment of the promises seems to have receded into impossibility.

… When Jesus came to the cross to bear the sin of the world in fathomless darkness, there was no substitute for him. He himself was the Lamb. God did not withhold his son, his only son. The Son himself became the substitute—for us. But the crucial difference between the Akedah and the cross, finally, is that the Father is not sacrificing the Son. God the Father and God the Son together, with a single will, enacted the eternal purpose of God that the second person of the blessed Trinity would become “once for all” the perfect burnt offering, for us human beings and for our salvation.

I have a bit of a crisis of faith on the trip. I have never reckoned with how salvation works for the Jews, with how Christian theology has hurt them (and by hurt I mean systematically slaughtered, century after century), with the tricky passages in Paul. I have never talked with devout Jews who long for the Messiah with a fervor and a faith that shames me. I have never heard of the identity-wrending pain of Jewish converts.

In this land where Jesus walked I suddenly feel shaky.

But then I go to an Anglican church in the old city, and the sun shines through the stained glass windows depicting a tree with the Apostle’s Creed written in Hebrew, and I take Communion. I look at the mosaic of the Akedah, the knife in the uplifted arm, the bound son, the angel’s forestalling hand. The lamb in the thicket. I hear the stories of the man from Gaza who converted to Christianity and now flees Muslim extremists, unable to communicate with his family, face shining with the passion of a new believer. I ask a Catholic priest how he wrestles with how to help his Jewish converts.

I write in my journal:

Thank you that you do not die.

Thank you that you died.

Thank you that you do not die.

And I think, whatever else, I will not let go of Jesus. 

He is too beautiful to give up. Too mysterious and painful not to be true.

the Akedah; photo mine

It was a packed trip, full of heady lectures and long days of working in schools. Several people on the trip had already been to Israel. And I don’t like feeling pressured to have certain emotions. All of that made me disinclined to have some deep emotional moment. But there are three moments I can remember that did move me. 

moment one

The first was when I saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. We were in our bus, skimming the sides of the hills around Haifa. It was vast and blue, and tears came to my eyes. The Mediterranean brings to mind the classics—Homer and Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle, Virgil and Cicero. Those men have shaped me almost as much as those in the Christian tradition (I know the traditions are often intertwined, for better and for worse). At first I felt guilty that it was a connection to pagan stories that made me emotional, not the Sea of Galilee or Nazareth. But that is often how the God of Israel has met me—through men and women who didn’t know him and the art they made that unwittingly reflected him. I think of Augustine’s spoils of Egypt. Why should he not meet me there? 

moment two

The second was when we were in a synagogue in a moshav in the Golan Heights. It was the Shabbat evening service. The men were singing. All I could think was, I can never go back to an normal Protestant worship service ever again. There is no comparable sound to all those men’s voices rising, this whole community coming together in unabashed remembrance and celebration and sometimes lamentation. Some would stop in the middle of singing to say hi to each other. Others were reading comic books. Everyone was both casual and deeply reverent. I watched the girls watch their mothers to know what to do and say. Afterward, a man lifted the Torah scroll by its handles so he could slide the buckle underneath without touching it. The ink shone under the light.

It was like when I was at the Western Wall another Shabbat evening, and a girls’ yeshiva was there, dancing. The older women watched, the younger girls drew onlookers in. They spun in and out and clapped. Above them stretched the wooden bridge up to the top of the Temple Mount, where I had been, where some of them would never go. There was so much joy. I thought, maybe this is what the kingdom will look like. 

moment three

The third was on our pilgrimage, yet another Shabbat evening. We Christians—composed of my American group, various priests and nuns, and some Arabic Protestants from the West Bank—were sharing Shabbat dinner with the Jews on the trip. They were passing around the challah bread and the wine, and one of the Arabic women commented how it reminded her of Communion.

It is Communion, someone said. She was confused; several of us jumped in to explain. This is where it comes from—this is what Jesus was using when he instituted it—this is why we have the bread and the wine at all. He was having Shabbat dinner. 

Her face, I’ll never forget it. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open. Oh! She got it. In that minute, she got it—these rituals of these people whom she lived right next to but never interacted with, they were the foundation of her own treasured rituals. She was shining, excited, amazed that she’d never realized that before, and all of us around her caught the joy and the wonder. We looked at each other and laughed with delight and raised our cups, and altogether we sang, David the king is alive.

the Mediterranean Sea by Haifa; photo mine

I didn’t want to leave. 

When I came back, I realized that what I loved about Israel is what I love about New York City. There is a sense of purpose and meaning in everything that they do there. In both New York and Israel, everyone here has chosen to be there. Everyone is searching for something. The veil is pulled back and all our longing is close to the surface. There is no sugarcoating or avoiding it. There is a defiant joy and a desperate faith. It is the heartbeat of the world, sending shock waves through everything that we feel, even here.

Obviously there is a lot of Western influence. Obviously not everyone is devoutly religious. Obviously there are distractions and delusions. Obviously I was only there for six weeks. And yet people give up their whole lives to live there forever. The land exudes something I have felt and been unable to articulate my whole life. Something related to C.S. Lewis’ longing for the mountain, I think.

There is so much pain there. I think I was, more or less subconsciously, absorbing it for six weeks. And also so much beauty. That Rilke quote: 

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

I think of a Jewish man I met saying how he is always refreshed when he is with Christians because of their pure or simple faith in God.

I think of what I learned from them about faith, about the importance of the daily and weekly rituals, how they cling to them, how they know they need them, how they rehearse their history, how they remember. How fervently they wait. How much they realize they need the Messiah. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…

Ps. 122:6

5 responses to “Stranger in a Strange Land: Israel, Pt. 1”

  1. Even weeks after reading this post, pieces of it still come back to me again and again…thank you for sharing some of your most raw, life-changing experiences. Your beautiful writing makes me feel like I am there in each place with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that means so much. Thank you for your words and for coming with me on this journey!


  2. Astounded by your words, as ever! I so loved hearing about your trip when we met in the city this summer, and reading the full account brought me back to that. So cool ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoy hearing your reflections and love the response of the Arab pizza man, “Oh, you’re from America? What does that matter?”

    Perspective. That’s one of the benefits of travel, especially for Americans.

    Is it ironic that Israel is about the size of NJ? Not substantive but a fun coincidence.

    Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Judith Pierce Livingstone Avatar
    Judith Pierce Livingstone

    Dearest Abby,

    This is wonderful. Thank you so much for writing it. I am so glad that you had the opportunity to experience all of this. I want SO MUCH to go to Sami’s wedding but it just is not possible. I hope to see you soon.

    All my love,


    Liked by 1 person

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