In the Land of Milk & Honey Part 2: The Sacred and The Secular

I was brought up and educated in the Christian tradition, but memories of this were long ago relegated to the backwaters of my mind. They would stir at the sound of Christmas carols and the occasional church hymn, but otherwise lay abandoned and forgotten.

Yet the indoctrination we receive as children dies hard. Though our rational adult minds know better, the impressions left upon us by potent sensations such as reverence and fear leave their mark. I know this because, having led a secular existence for over a decade, I found myself overcome with awe as I stood in the burning sun outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I was about to step into the place where Jesus himself had been buried. Supposedly. Jesus, though.

As another trip participant (who had also been brought up with Christianity) commented during one of our evening ‘processing sessions’, it was astonishing to “feel something I haven’t felt in years.”

But when I entered the cramped tomb, under the dour surveillance of a rather choleric Orthodox priest, it was with the same intellectual curiosity as my travel companions. No religious fever overcame me. Though I did feel a mild delight that I remembered enough Greek to read the lettering on an embroidered cloth (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΝΕΣΤΗ – Christ is risen).

Earlier that day we had visited the Western Wall and Temple Mount. My mind boggled at how these three massively significant Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites all lay within a stone’s throw of one another.

Though we had to cover up while visiting these sites, I definitely saw some Jewish ladies in stilettoes at the Western Wall, celebrating a very large and noisy Bar Mitzvah. Jerusalem had felt like an abstract concept to me; that untouched holy place in the Bible where Jesus lived. In reality it’s a bustling modern city full of life, though it has its share of religious and political strife too.

That evening’s processing session also brought up an interesting question for the Jews of the group. Is Judaism a religion or a race? You can be a Jew but not religious, or a religious Jew but not racially Jewish. I could convert, and officially be a Jew, though not by blood. Three nights later I would find myself in a bar in Tel Aviv, surrounded by sloshed Israelis, facing two Israeli dudes who happily claimed to be Jewish, but not practising ones. The answer, it seems, is both.

There’s no doubt that religion and ethnicity are very closely tied in Judaism. But what is the Jewish race? Ashkenazi, Sephardi? I decided to stop wondering. I’m just going to accept people are whatever they say they are. Who am I to say otherwise? That would be like people trying to decide whether I’m English or Chinese. Let’s not go there.

Some non-Jews on the trip were interested in Judaism in more than an intellectual capacity: there was a genuine interest in the religious practise, even conversion. Though the Jews are a people who have suffered historically, and continue to suffer under anti-Semitism, I could also see the appeal. No doubt in part because of their ordeals, the Jewish identity is robust and the community tight-knit – at least that’s how it looks from the outside.

There’s something to be said for the enduring traditions, and the comfort and feeling of belonging that must bring. Shabbat is fun, especially the Kabbalat Shabbat we attended in Tel Aviv at the port, where we essentially got to watch a free concert at sunset, with a beautiful vocalist singing traditional songs.

Anyway, on our first full day in Jerusalem we were hit with the heavy stuff: religion, then later we would visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial musem. Then the National Cemetary and the burial site of Herzl, founder of Zionism. Now that’s a polarising topic if ever I saw one.

We would go to Palestine next.

Rob Bye