Holy Week in the Eastern Mode

Unlike a Catholic or Protestant church, there are no pews, no booklets, no projection screens.  No announcements.  Lots of icons; fewer stained-glass windows.  We’re worshipping in the lands where Christianity was invented: the eastern end of the Roman Empire.  The Mediterranean world of flat bread, wine, and olive oil.  The great centers of faith were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, where people spoke Greek.  Rome wasn’t even the capital of the Roman after Constantine gave up trying to defend it from Barbarians.   He moved the capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself.

For the past ten days, we’ve been taking part in a course at St. George’s Anglican College in Arab East Jerusalem.  With twelve others, mostly Americans, we’ve traced Jesus’ last week and explored the liturgies of six Orthodox branches of Christendom: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian.

Communion of Saints Icon, Holy Saturday, Russian Orthodox church

The worship services we visited were a kind of dance between solo and ensemble.  On the one hand, a choir or two and a group of clergy follow the service: an ancient sequence of chants.  On the other hand, individual people come and go, taking care of spiritual business around the church.  So you see people quietly whispering a prayer in front of an icon, crossing themselves or kissing the painting.  You see people bowing and even prostrating themselves, like Muslims at prayer.  They light long, slender tapered candles and place them in bowls of sand.  Scott Gunn Candle woman(Photo credit below: Scott Gunn)

And then someone in silk vestments catches everyone’s attention by swinging a thurible full of incense, three times in each of three directions.  As the choral music swells, the celebrant, perhaps wearing a crown or a brocaded hood, sweeps out of the doors from the mostly-concealed sanctum, and redirects the chant in a booming voice.


In the picture below, the Armenian Patriarch prepares to wash the feet of his twelve bishops, humbling his otherwise very exalted self on Holy Thursday as Jesus did.

Armenian Patriarch will wash the feet of his twelve bishops

Virtually every member of the cast is male in an Orthodox liturgy, though at the Russian service, a nun carried the Patriarch’s staff when he was not using it.  I was struck by the sacred seriousness of everything, but despite all the formality and traditions, people seemed at home.  It was like going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving: you dress up a little more, and remember not to slouch, and it’s just the same as last year, but that doesn’t make it boring.

We were surprised at the number of folks filming the services on their cell phones.  A young deacon, when he wasn’t moving a lectern or carrying a candle, seemed to be documenting everything.  I wondered if he would use the film later to prepare for next year, when he’d have a bigger role.  We were in our own private devotional worlds, where the veil between the visible and Icon of St. Gerasimus in Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Jerusaleminvisible worlds is thinner than usual.  You look at Mary’s sad eyes in a painting, or close your own eyes and listen to the singing.  It’s all in a minor key, which makes the prayer seem more profound, despite the fact that you don’t know any Armenian or Russian.

Most of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings or mosaics: pictures of bearded men and veiled women, most with haloes and carrying symbols of their own struggles with the selfish distractions and obsessions of life.  Prominent are the fathers and mothers of the early church who retreated to the desert, seeking enlightenment in poverty.  The faces aren’t looking at you, but they are watching over you, somehow. Scripture calls them the great cloud of witnesses.  They chanted these very melodies, five hundred, a thousand, and even fifteen hundred years ago, in walled cities and caves in the desert.  Some were severe zealots trembling before a harsh divine judge, but many were open-hearted healers of the sick, or drum-majors for justice.

On the left is the monastic guru St. Gerasimus, who left his wealthy parents in Lycia, Asia Minor, to seek a more honest and compassionate life in the desert.  He was said to have tamed a lion by extracting a thorn from its paw.

One of the most dramatic rituals of Orthodox Holy Week comes when the Greek Patriarch enters the tomb where the crucified Jesus was laid.  He emerges with a new fire, which is transferred by candles, Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.53.38 AMlamps, and lanterns to waiting congregations all over Jerusalem, and also flown by jet to Athens, Moscow, and the New World.  We learned that archaeologists believe it quite likely that this, or one of the tombs within a fifty-foot radius, was the resting place of Jesus.  Here is the Holy Fire just after it arrived in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral a mile west of where it was kindled.

Compared to our westernized worship, the Orthodox are much more into the sacredness of beauty.  More interested in mystery than belief.  They are swimming in spirituality.

For me, the point of Holy Week is that by following the actions of Jesus and his followers closely, I can better understand why he didn’t flinch from a fate I am sure he knew was coming.  If God could take on human form, Huston Smith once wrote, this is what God would look like:

  • a suffering servant, to whom no one was too lowly to care for
  • a critic of the empires that worship wealth, violence, and dominance
  • a spiritual doctor of paradoxical wisdom who unerringly seemed to know when prescriptions of yin or yang were indicated.

Jesus accepted the phony trials, the mob’s braying, and Pontius Pilate’s cynical hand-washing gesture.  And a few days after dying, he began appearing in some strange new form, a resurrected being.  He had been divine, after all.  An icon.

This week has confirmed my intuition that something very mysterious and inspiring happened.  Before that, resurrection had just been a theory: at the end of time, God will reunite bodies and souls.  Hundreds and soon thousands of people became convinced that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and passion were, in fact, a vision of the eternal goodness, truth, and beauty of The One in whose image we are made.

At its best, religion gives us windows that help us see that One.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted company a thousand years ago.  It was really political, although there were church matters at stake: Latin or vernacular?  Pope or Councils?  Filioque or not?

They quit looking THROUGH the windows.  All they could manage was to look AT each other’s windows.  Or to use one of Jesus’ best metaphors, they complained about the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the log in their own.

It’s been eye-opening for me to come to the East and look through some ancient windows which are new to me.

LM inside Christ Anglican Church, Nazareth

Lynnell and I met at Christ Church, Detroit in 1983.  We took this picture two weeks ago at our sister parish, Christ Church, Nazareth–Jesus’ home town–34 years later.


Why my Palestinian guide can’t take his seven year old to the zoo and other thoughts on being on the West Bank

SurfingPoem/grafitti on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem

by Lynnell Mickelsen

We’ve spent the last two weeks in Israel, a country I long vowed to avoid until its government started doing right by the Palestinians.

It hasn’t. We came anyways. And I actually don’t regret it because I’ve learned a lot.

A preface: I know it’s risky to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recommended method is to carefully and delicately parse every word because, after all, the Holocaust was horrible; both sides commit atrocities, and a lot of people grew up with the whole “Land without a people for a people without a land” story via the young, blue-eyed Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan in “Exodus,“ (circa 1960) and really, who wants to mess with that primal piece of mythology?


So in America, we mostly don’t talk about this conflict, which, not coincidentally, tends to serve the status quo.

Anyhow, my response is as follows: It is complicated. Both sides have done horrible things. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.

And the current level of injustice is starkly lopsided. The numbers of dead, injured, jailed and dispossessed are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the equation and Americans in particular almost never hear the Palestinian side of the story.

Soooo…. with all that as a preface: we spent our first three days in Israel traveling in the West Bank with a great outfit called Green Olive Tours.  I don’t know where to begin, so let’s talk about license plate colors, water tanks and walls.

1) The color of your license plate really matters. Israeli citizens get yellow license plates. Yellow plates rock. With a yellow plate, you are free to move about the country.

In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank get white (or green for cabs) license plates. White or green plates are a drag because it means you aren’t allowed to drive on Israeli roads without a special permit from the Israeli army, which tends not to grant such things very often.  In the map below, Israeli plates get you onto yellow and red roads.  Palestinian plates keep you on white roads or carefully-watched on red ones.


image from TheOtherSite

But it’s not just about cars. Palestinians in the West Bank also aren’t allowed to walk on Israeli roads or take public transportation into Israel without the special permit.

For the record, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Three million Palestinians currently live in the West Bank. Under Israeli rules, they spend most of their lives confined to a chunk of land about the size of the state of Delaware. An additional two million Palestinians in Gaza live under even harsher restrictions in an even smaller space. But we didn’t get to Gaza, so in this post, I’ll just talk about the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inability to freely move around makes it hard for Palestinians on the West Bank to hold a decent job or participate in any kind of modern economy. I mean, they are cut off from all major Israeli cities. Even working in tourism based in the West Bank is difficult.

For example, our Green Olive Tour to Hebron and Bethlehem started out from Jerusalem because that’s where almost all tourists are staying. But our guide couldn’t meet us there. Muhannad has a car and lives a mere ten miles from Jerusalem, but he’s not allowed to enter Israel’s second-largest city.

So in order for Muhannad to do his tour guide gig, Green Olive, which is committed to using West Bank guides, had to hire a driver with a yellow Israeli license plate to make the 20-minute trip to the military checkpoint where Muhannad was waiting for us. We transferred to his car, which was parked next to this large, scary red sign with a message in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

West Bank red sign

“Okay, just for starters. the Palestinian Authority doesn’t ban Israelis from traveling into the West Bank.”  Muhannad said, pointing to the sign. “The Israeli government bans them, in part because it doesn’t want its citizens to see what happens here. And it puts this sign up in English to scare as many tourists away as possible and convince everyone it’s too dangerous to be in the Palestinian territories.”

Muhannad is a trim man in his early 40s who speaks quickly and in perfect English. He was born near Bethlehem. He and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 9. Like so many Palestinians stuck in the West Bank with its high unemployment rates, they went overseas to find work. Their nine-year-old son was born in Denver and is a U.S. citizen.

Muhannad and his wife loved living and working in Colorado. But they missed their families and as Palestinians they also felt torn about living abroad. Ever since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis have been squeezing Palestinians economically and hoping they’ll immigrate. Living abroad felt like a form of capitulation. So they came home.

But it’s not easy living in a place where one’s daily life is subjected to the whims of the Israeli army, imposed by soliders carrying automatic weapons, most of whom are young men in their late teens and 20s with all the wisdom and maturity that implies. And as his kids get older, Muhannad sometimes wonders if coming home was the right choice.

“For example…. our seven-year-old son is just learning how to read and is crazy about animals,” he said. “So he went online and discovered there was a zoo in Jerusalem that had lions and elephants. He begged us to take him there. It’s only 10 miles away.”

Muhannad and his wife are Christians; the Israelis traditionally allow Palestinian Christians to apply for travel permits to Jerusalem twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. So they figured that was their best chance to take him to the zoo. “But he’s just a little boy,” Muhannad said. “So he kept saying ‘why do we have to wait until Christmas? Why can’t we go this weekend?’”

Which brought Muhannad and his wife to the dilemma that every Palestinian parent in the West Bank and Gaza faces: at what age do you tell your children that they are effectively sealed in? That simple trips like going to a nearby zoo…or playing on the sand beaches of the Mediterranean which are a tantalizing 50 miles away are difficult or impossible for them…simply because they’re Palestinian?

cycle palestine 2015 317photo: emtainbikeblog.blogspot.com

2) Ye shall know them by their water tanks. If you drive around the West Bank for any period of time, you’ll notice that in some towns, every house has a big black plastic water tank on the roof. We saw this on multiple trips and our Palestinian guides said it was because the Israeli government controls the water supply and regularly cuts off the water to Palestinian homes without notice.

So people use their water tank reserve supply until it goes back on, which is usually in 24-72 hours. The tanks are plastic because a) they’re cheaper; b) if bored Israeli soldiers decide to shoot holes in your family’s water tank, people have learned it’s easier and faster to glue on a plastic patch than try to weld on a metal one.

Cut-offs can happen weekly, so most Palestinians carefully ration and monitor their water use, especially in the hot summer. On the West Bank, no one takes long, leisurely showers.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. No one with black plastic water tanks takes long leisurely showers. About 400,000 Israeli Jewish citizens also live in the West Bank in so-called “settlements” where the only tanks on their roofs are small, white solar water heaters. Cut-offs don’t seem to happen in the settlements; their water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thus the fastest way to tell if a West Bank community is Jewish or Palestinian is to just look at their roofs.

A few years ago, Muhannad said he came home to find his wife near tears. It was a hot summer day and their sons wanted her to fill up their bathtub with cool water and let them play. But she was afraid to risk using so much water—there had been so many cut-offs, they needed to save as much as possible just for drinking.

Look at us, his wife said, we can’t even let our kids play in a bathtub. Meanwhile, the children in the settlements have swimming pools.

The word “settlement” makes these communities sound quaint and rustic, but they look more like large, sprawling gated suburbs, albeit surrounded by high walls and razor-wire fences, and guarded by soldiers. Settlements can easily have 10,000 or more residents. They often come with their own shopping malls, office buildings, schools, libraries, public parks, beautifully irrigated gardens, tennis courts, artistic fountains in roundabouts, and swimming pools.

settlement poolHilltop water tower (no tanks necessary), apartment buildings, and public swimming pool complex at Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish settlement, population, 37,000, photo from 972mag.com

Under international law, none of these Israeli settlements are legal because they’ve been built on Palestinian-owned land illegally seized from its owners and controlled by an occupying army. But the Israeli government continues to seize land and build more.

In addition to the 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, another 350,000 settlers live in houses and land in East Jerusalem, almost all of it illegally taken from Palestinian owners. Combine the two areas and you have three-quarters of a million Israelis living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law.

The settlements are a huge barrier to any hope of creating an independent Palestinian state. Which is precisely why the right-wing Israeli governments keep building more.

The stark contrast between the lives of Palestinians (whose families have lived on the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years) and Jewish settlers (who are often recent immigrants from the U.S. or Russia) can make the military occupation even more unbearable for the Palestinian side.  Jewish settlers get yellow license plates and are free to commute back and forth from Jerusalem on yellow-plates-only roads like this one we took to Nablus:

The government builds these special highways to let settlers more easily drive around or through Palestinian areas. It posts thousands of soldiers and guards at military checkpoints, to make sure Palestinians stay in their restricted zones.

And then there’s the Wall. Even though I’ve read a lot about the Wall, I was still shocked by the massive barrier that snakes, and stretches, and envelopes the West Bank.

West Bank wall yahooWest Bank Wall; photo: Yahoo News

3) With a length of over 400 miles, the West Bank Barrier is four times longer than the Berlin Wall; nearly half the length of the old barrier between East and West Germany. Built at the cost of $2.6 billion, it’s the single largest infrastructure project in Israeli history.

The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising when Israelis were being terrorized by suicide bombing attacks. The government first said it needed it for security, but it soon started also using the wall as a way to advance and secure more settlements, which is why the wall has kept expanding.

The wall has made the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable and prison-like, cutting off more roads and turning what was once an easy ten-minute commute to schools or work or to visit elderly parents into hour-long detours.

LM Bethlehem wall jpggraffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem

But has it worked for the Israelis?

In the short run…. maybe. The suicide bombings have drastically decreased, although whether that’s due to the wall or better security and infiltration of terrorist groups by Israeli’s Shin Bet is hard to say. Hundreds of Palestinian laborers regularly sneak over the wall to take day jobs in Israel, so it would still seem possible for someone to climb over with a vest full of explosives. And random acts of violence still happen here—as they happen all over the world.

In the long run…honestly, I don’t know see how any of this is sustainable.

In two months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its “victory” in the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to its capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But how has that victory turned out?

For 50 years, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians in these captured areas in limbo; not allowing them to become citizens of Israel or a free Palestinian state; controlling them ever more ruthlessly; and building bigger, longer walls. But this the process has also transformed Israel into a country that veers ever farther from functioning as a democracy and ever-closer to an apartheid state.

Jerusalem, South Africa Bag

Israel is also facing a demographic dilemma. This year, the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel proper is about 6.5 million—or roughly the same number as Israeli Jews. But Palestinians have a higher birth rate; by 2020, they are predicted to outnumber Israeli Jews, putting Israel on a collision course with the very reason for its existence.

Israel was founded as Jewish state; it gives preferential treatment and refuge to Jews, who have historically suffered from discrimination around the world.  This systematic bias has always been problematic. But what will it look like as Jews increasingly become a powerful, well-armed minority that denies basic human rights to the majority of people it controls?

I’m writing this in Jerusalem during Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and it’s hard not to ponder how things change over history and roles reverse.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

And I’m writing this on Easter morning, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, one of the biggest plot reversals in human history. And it’s hard not to wonder about how death becomes life and vice versa.

little Palestinian boy

This is a place with a history that goes back thousands of years. So 50 or 100 years is just a blink of an eye. I don’t know what will happen next or when. But as W. B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem: the center cannot hold; the ceremony of innocence has drowned.

Meanwhile, Muhannad’s nine-year-old son is  thinking about his Second Coming. He was born in Denver. He knows he’s an American citizen. He’s already imagining a life without checkpoints and soldiers. His dream, says Muhannad, is to live in a country where he can drive to the beach.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

This Year In Jerusalem

At the end of Passover seders all around the world, Jews express a fond hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.”  This is not, I have recently learned, a geographical aspiration.  It is a spiritual vow: may we find ourselves a year from today in peace, living with integrity with our neighbors.  My friend Rabbi Avi Olitzky told the kids at Breck a few years ago, don’t think that Passover is just about how ‘we were once slaves, but now we’re free.’  There is a part of each of us that’s Pharaoh, too.  

Wise words for a financially-fortunate, white, Christian, American, heterosexual couple in good health to ponder as the moon reaches full this Passover.

Just because you are in Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, does not mean you’ve arrived.  Jews living here don’t say anything different at the end of the meal.  They, too, say “Next year,” because “Jerusalem” refers to a state of shalom, peace, nirvana, or wholeness that, Lord knows, is not yet here.

Walking home from dinner last night at St. George’s Anglican College in the Holy City, I snapped this photo of the Passover Moon:

Passover Moon

Lynnell and I are taking a ten-day course at St. George’s called “Easter Fire,” referring to the tradition of kindling a new flame on the eve of Easter in churches all over the world.  By coincidence, Passover, Orthodox Easter, and Western Easter all fall in the same week this year.  Every day, our group of thirteen pilgrims from the US, Canada, and Australia visits several sacred places in or near Jerusalem to get a clearer sense of the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, healings, death, and resurrection.

Today, for example, we visited the place of his baptism, and saw these two white doves:

Flying Doves at Jordan Baptism Site (Israel Side)

We renewed our own baptismal vows, promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to persevere in resisting evil, and to work for peace and justice in the world.  All very sobering vows.  Later we sat in silence atop this mountain in the desert above Jericho.  Our Chaplain reminded us that the prophet Elijah had found refuge in a cave right here, before traveling to the mountain where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.  Another translation calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  Jesus also sought the quiet of the desert in these hills, trying to make sense of his vision of a dove coming down on him at his baptism, and a voice calling him “Beloved Son.”  We only had a half hour, but we looked down on cliffside caves, huts, and a modern monastery where for 1700 years monks and nuns have sought the voice of God by fleeing the noise of daily life.   I felt serene and wise until a pushy teenager who’d pestered us on the hike up the hill mocked the way I told him “no thank you.”  He was having a bad day, I guess, frustrated at not selling anything.  Jesus wouldn’t have laughed at him like I did.

Yesterday, we climbed up and down the Mount of Olives with thousands of others recreating Palm Sunday, passing this Jewish cemetery along the way.  Visitors leave stones instead of flowers, honoring the dead.

Jewish Cemetery on Mount of Olives Facing Dome of the Rock Shrine, Palm Sunday

We got to the bottom of that steep hill and then began climbing again, through a Muslim cemetery.  Since the Messiah is expected to take this very path, being resurrected on the last day on the slopes below the Holy City puts you at the front of the line!  Our Palm Sunday procession ended up at the Lions’ Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

St. Stephen's or Lion's Gate, Jerusalem's East Side

The day before, we had paraded from a church in Bethany, a couple miles east of Jerusalem, to the tomb of Lazarus, a tiny passageway into a stone tomb too claustrophobic-sounding for us.  These boys had a good perch, though, and we had a great cup of Arabic coffee while waiting for our braver fellow pilgrims to enter and emerge.

Boys above Processional Crowd at Lazarus' Tomb below the Separation Wall

The Separation Wall is visible above the white car at the far right, up the hill.  A guy who works at the college used to have a ten-minute commute from this town.  Because of the Wall and checkpoints, it now takes him an hour on a good day, and two hours a few times a month.

The day before that, before our course started at St. George’s, Lynnell and I paid a visit to Christ Anglican Church in Nazareth, an historic Palestinian Christian center of education and worship which was once the sister parish of our own Christ Church Detroit.  We had coffee with Fr. Nael, and I snapped this picture from behind the altar.

Celebrant's View of Christ Church, Nazareth

We also visited a replica (below) of the synagogue of Jesus’ youth in Nazareth.  In those days, synagogues were more community gathering places than houses of worship.  That role was played by the grand Temple in Jerusalem, recently expanded by King Herod.  But within a couple of generations of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jewish rebellions against oppressive Roman rule led to the catastrophic destruction of that Temple in 70 CE; and synagogues like this one took on the role of housing prayer, study, and celebration for Jewish communities all over the world.  Here some Christian pilgrims from Hong Kong heard about Jesus’ first public preaching in his hometown.  He didn’t win any converts.  In fact, his neighbors, having known him since infancy, didn’t buy his new role as rabbi, healer, and prophet.  He didn’t call himself Messiah quite yet, but that would have really angered them.

Model of Nazareth Synagogue

In Nazareth, we stayed in this guest house, called al-Mutran in honor of the Arabic word for Bishop, whose house is next door.  The Old City of Nazareth is full of great cuisine, amazing churches and mosques, and not nearly enough tourists.

View from guest parlor, al-Mutran Guest House, Nazareth


February and March in Pictures

You can see captions by hovering your cursor or clicking on each photo.  Most of these pictures haven’t been in the blog yet.  Thanks to our loyal readers.  Four Months To Go!

Crushed: one picture and 500 words

After lunch in Safed, the world capital of Kabbalah and for the 60’s and 70’s the Israeli art capital, Lynnell lingered at the table and read history and I went for a walk in the spring rain. We’d been talking about how Safed seemed cursed with instability. (thanks to Wikipedia and the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories)

1099 The Muslim town of Safed captured by Crusaders; many killed.

1188 Saladin beseiged Safed for a year, then retook it from the Crusaders.  Christians were given safe passage to Tyre, on South Lebanon coast.  Safed’s walls knocked down 50 years later so Crusaders wouldn’t want it back, but…

1240 Christians got it back, and rebuilt the walls, but…in

1266 the Muslims retook Safed and didn’t destroy anything so if the Christians come back it would be harder to capture.

The Christians didn’t come back.

1500’s Jews, especially those expelled from Catholic Spain, began arriving in significant numbers and made Safed a world center of Jewish learning and book publishing.  Now ruled by Ottomans, Safed was about 25% Jewish.

1628 Safed conquered by a Druze army (a minority sect related to just about every religion you can think of in this part of the world).  In 1633 the Ottomans got it back.  In 1660 the Druze destroyed it, and very few Jews came back to rebuild.

1700’s plagues and earthquakes

1800’s Russian and Lithuanian Jews came, fleeing pogroms. Egyptians took over Palestine, but Safed’s Arabs resisted, and looted most Jewish homes in 1834.  The ones who remained had their hillside homes flattened by an earthquake three years later.  More plagues followed, plus Druze looted Muslim and Jewish houses just after they were rebuilt.

In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and made contradictory promises to Jews, Arabs, and (secretly) France about the future of the Middle East.  The first British census of Safed found 60% Muslims and 33% Jews, the rest being Christian, Druze, and Other.

Anti-Jewish riots in 1929 left 20 Jews dead in Safed.

In 1948, Jewish forces drove the Arab majority out of town, including the family of Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority.  Since the declaration of the independent state of Israel, Safed’s been just about 100% Jewish.

As I walked around in the cold drizzle, I kept ducking into galleries.  The biggest gallery was in a decommissioned mosque.  The crescent had been removed from the spire, but an elegant quotation from the Quran remained, carved over the main doors.  Off to the right was what first appeared to be a whimsical, almost cartoonish sculpture (below).  Sandwiched between what seemed to me like the heavy stone blocks of the history we’d been reading are pale human figures.  Like beads on a merchant’s abacus, they get shuttled back and forth as he rings up a sum.  But when the abacus is upturned, the beads, people, and cubes become skewers (we had had kebab for lunch).  And the people are crushed.


I’m not sure whether the artist meant them to represent various generations of Jews in particular.  He or she (there was no label) might have been depicting just the people of this hilltop town or maybe all of us.  The blocks of stone might symbolize any of the oppressions that bear down on us, and the abacus itself could belong to any bean-counter, heavenly or demonic.  Safed has become once again a center of Jewish mysticism, and the deeds of G-d, angels, and Satan himself are all the subject of imagination.