(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 29, 2017)
JERUSALEM ✦ It was Shabbat, the Sabbath, Friday evening, and after a mad frenzy to close the markets and clean the strewn and tossed streets by 6 pm, everything got quiet.
This is when I saw them, an Orthodox Jewish father and his boy walking hand-in-hand. Down Jaffe Street is where they walked like they were the only two souls in the world.
I have no idea what they might have said to each other as they walked, wearing traditional clothing complete with their Orthodox black hats. In one way or another, though, they must have shared something about story.
Because story, to an Orthodox Jew, is all that matters. When the rest of the world goes about its business in its predictable ways – “It’s the economy, Stupid” – the Jewish response is, “No, actually it’s about more. It’s about story.”
Yes, it’s story that develops the fullness of Jewish culture and community and identity, through teaching that’s teaching of another kind.
This is to say, you can go to teacher’s college and learn the latest and most cunning teaching techniques, but then realize it’s best to let all that go because you love books and you love children and you teach best by simply introducing children and books to each other.
A Jewish father realizes this, even as he realizes he has limited time to teach the story. “We were once slaves in Egypt. We were rescued. In this we live and move and have our being. Praise be to God.”
The world knows at least something of this, the ongoing Jewish narrative. Two days after I observed that father and son, all activity in Israel stopped for Holocaust Remembrance, a time to reflect on the horror of the 20th-Century genocide that killed two-thirds of Europe’s Jews.
Four days before that, a violent skirmish unfolded – my family happened to be within easy sight of it – involving Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem, Palestine, that is the birthplace of Christ, the Prince of Peace, ironically, one place with a dearth of peace.
This is the paradox of the Jewish story. It’s the most non-revisionist history ever. I mean, would anyone buy a used car from the patriarch Jacob?
Yes, Israel’s story is one of survival, starting with Abraham, that backpacker of sorts who settled here 3,800 years ago with a God-given promise that all people groups on earth will be blessed through his lineage.
In 2017 it’s easy to miss this, or be offended, or insist that the Jewish story is just another narrative of just another culture, that all cultures offer the world things in equal measure.
But while any culture is to be respected and engaged, the sweep of history says not every culture leaves the same mark. This is why there are no Hittites in New York. Now, after being scattered like dust in the wind, homeless for most of the past 2,000 years, the tiny nation (you can drive Israel’s longest stretch, north to south, in a few hours), is reborn.
“I couldn’t conceive such a small country having such a large history,” is what Mark Twain said when visiting this region. That was in 1867. One wonders, in 3,800 years will Canada still have a story?
Even when I pray for my children at night, strangely enough, I say a variation of a prayer from the Torah. Why? I’m not Jewish. “May God bless you and keep you and shine His face on you,” I say, often with a dab of oil on their foreheads. It quiets the spirit.
“We’re living in a remarkable time,” is how I put it to the kids when we arrived here to explore, en route from Africa to our Canadian home. But it hasn’t been visits to any of Israel’s holy sites that have been as meaningful as simple, unexpected interactions on the street.
When arriving in Tel Aviv you’ll even see airport posters for what is new Christian-Jewish dialogue. So it is. One evening a stranger, a Kenyan who saw our Ugandan daughter, stopped to talk and pray for the family on an open Jerusalem road, attracting others to join.
The children will never forget such things. Nor should they. This place has given the world too much to think about.