At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service and the ritual meal of Passover, it is customary for Jews of the diaspora to say: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, literally the city of peace, is the destination, the ordained location of a spiritual paradise, as imagined in Revelation 21: 2-4 as ‘the dwelling place of God…with man’ where ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain …’
I arrived in Israel in June 2012, as a drama therapist without a bible or map. My drive into Jerusalem from the airport was relatively calm, except for the hour that my car was blocked by scores of Israeli children and adults with placards, protesting the building of a new settlement on Palestinian territory. The obstacle was more engaging than annoying to me as the car passed through, and I, as expected, arrived at my hotel near the old city unscathed.
On my first day, I wandered the streets of the old walled city, ending up at the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, white hot in the sun. Seeking shelter, I retreated inside to the cool, enclosed extension of the Wall. Walking to the rear, where construction workers in hard hats mingled with orthodox men in kippot, I found a comfortable white plastic lawn chair and sat to cool off. Scores of men lifted their voices in noticeable disharmony and engaged in a ritualized yoga of bending and bowing, stretching and chanting. As I watched, breathing evenly with the dance, I began to let go of the fatigue of the road and the disconnection I felt from my own Jewishness. Time passed and I entered a quasi-blissful state among this society of men, so different from the women in my drama therapy groups whose words and movements pointed toward more earthbound destinations.
That night I gave a talk at Hebrew University in a conference entitled ‘Theatre as Tikkun Olam (Mending the World)’. I spoke about my international research on children’s conceptions of God and how my collection of children’s drawings and stories of God transformed into a musical play called God Lives in Glass. I presented a video clip from a production of the play, centered in a song, ‘City of Walls,’ about the unrelenting strife in Jerusalem.
In the production, the director chose to project images onstage of haredim, ultra-orthodox men and boys, praying at the wall. In that moment, aware of a malaise in the audience, I felt a tightness in my gut. When I asked for feedback, one woman immediately exclaimed that the imagery and music were banal, demeaning the complexity of the wall as symbol. Another Israeli woman reflected: ‘The symbol of the western wall is too concrete. For us, non-religious Israelis, it is more of an object for conflict between religious and non-religious people, between Muslims and Jews. So my own feeling about it faded away, even though recently when I happened to be near the huge stones there, I tried to smell the past with the holy and not-holy content.’
After the Sabbath, I was guided by one of the orthodox group members through the Mea Shearim (100 gates) neighborhood, populated by traditional haredi Jews. The experience was disorienting as it felt like being catapulted back to an 18th century stetl in Poland, with courtyards built around wells, residents dressed in black heavy clothing, men with fur hats in the heat of day, food and goods sold from small neighborhood stores and workshops. Meeting up with a young man from the US, I asked permission to enter the local yeshiva of a particular haredi sect. He guided me into a huge unkempt room, with long wooden benches and overflowing bookshelves stuffed haphazardly with sacred texts. A smattering of men dressed in black suits, white shirts and prayer shawls rocked up and down and side-to-side in prayer. My guide said: ‘When the room is full later in the day, the sound of prayer is deafening.’ And he added: ‘At the center of my life is this yeshiva, where I study and pray from early morning until sundown. It is my small contribution to repairing the world. This is where I will grow old.’ He was so pale, barely 25, with a wife and five children.
I did not see much of East Jerusalem, the Muslim section, as my hosts told me it was unsafe. And I only wandered briefly around the Muslim quarter of the old city, where, with the exception of the merchants in the bazaars, people keep their distance from strangers. This was surely a city of walls.
Journeying in a taxi from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the driver pointed with pride to the newly build walls separating the highway from the Arab villages behind the walls. He said: ‘I feel so much safer. Before the walls, young Arab men came down from their villages at night and randomly fired on the passing cars.’
I settled into my small hotel near the sea and took a long walk on the tayelet, a lovely promenade along the Mediterranean. All seemed so calm. Instead of the lively presence of Arabs I remembered from walks a number of years ago, I noticed scores of young African men, mostly from Sudan, hanging out in groups separate from the young Israelis, playing matkot paddleball on the beach.
I facilitated several workshops in Tel Aviv. In one, among a group of professional drama therapists, was a young student, Safia, from an Arabic background. In the work, the group created and dramatized stories based in the model of the hero’s journey. The group chose Safia’s story to dramatize, and following the workshop, I asked her to write up a reflection. Her words follow:
In the workshop I had a feeling of not belonging for different reasons: age, religion and nationality. Some of the participants were my former professors. Also, I’m a Palestinian Arab citizen in Israel, an internal refugee after 1948. My background, belongings and language are different from the other participants, also charged and contested. English, the language of the workshop, is my 3rd language after Arabic and Hebrew. My religious background is Christian, which makes my life even more challenging as a minority inside a minority inside a minority-- young Palestinian Christian female.
As a part of the hero’s journey, we were asked to feel through our body the hero, the obstacle, the destination and the guide, then to draw each part. Then we sat randomly in small groups and shared our stories. Mine was chosen to work on in the larger group. I was very happy. I felt that the group was thirsty to know more about me. I read my story in Arabic, and they suggested that I read it also on stage in Arabic. Something happened to me at that moment--I felt that for the first time, they are ready to see me, to hear my language and not to feel threatened by it.
After the dramatization, I could hear my heart beating and didn’t feel anything. Professor Landy then invited me to choose new people from the larger group to represent the guide, the obstacle and the destination in my story. I asked a man to stand on a chair as a guide, and I stood right next to him on another chair. We pointed our fingers at one another and created a scale to balance ourselves. At some point, feeling very tired, I left the chair. I forgot that a group was in the room. When I looked back to the guy, he pointed at me and I felt overwhelmed and couldn’t stop my tears from going out. I saw my father and my grandfather pointing at me. How did I get here? I was afraid, like someone falling into a trap. This confused me and left me speechless. At last I stood up on the chair again, and the guy hugged me. Together, we pointed at our (my) destination—a new direction. We stood there pointing for a minute, and this time I didn’t feel tired. Trying to balance all the time was so exhausting for me.
The group sharing helped me to see that my family expects me to stand for them. Their pain is my pain. My grandfather was evacuated from his village in 1948 at the age of 13 so Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, is still living inside. They trust me to get their rights back that were stolen from them, first, the right of return. Yet they are very afraid for me. My father was raised on: ‘the walls listen,’ which means you are not allowed to speak what you feel or think, so that my generation came with many questions and demanded answers. They are trying to protect us in the traditional patriarchal Arab way in which the children are expected to understand from a gaze or from a raised finger, a threat and a warning sign. And the minute I saw it at the workshop, all my life complexities were raised. All the feelings of not belonging at the beginning were even more exaggerated.
But after the workshop, I felt loved and contained, and most important, seen, despite the differences. Without trying to solve anything, I gave up the scale. It was too heavy for me. Now love replaces it, and fills the unbalances in my daily life. I felt like a real hero. This was and still is my journey.
Although I missed East Jerusalem and the West Bank on this visit, I did experience the walls that come as warnings and finger pointing, too easy to miss as an outsider to the culture. I was blessed, as were all of us in this group, to be in the presence of a student who taught her teachers something about destination as an extension of perception. What if we were to see the finger pointing not as a gesture of threat and judgment, but as one of loss, connection and reparation? What if, as in the Christian iconography of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that finger can be reconceived as a touch of life from the creator to the creation, one that is imperfect and unforgiving, forever in search of a lost Paradise, a new Jerusalem?
Robert J. Landy, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University.