Once or twice a year, I say goodbye to Jerusalem for a few weeks and return to the United States. And I often find myself in my former hometown: Orange County, Calif.
I first become fully aware of my new surroundings when I awake to the sound of waves’ breaking along the Pacific Shore and the barking of seals. No longer can the Dormition Abbey’s bells, chiming from Mt. Zion, mark the hour for me.
In some ways, it would be difficult to find a region less like Israel than Orange County. It’s true that the weather is similar to Jerusalem’s, minus the Holy City’s occasional snowstorms and sandstorms. Some international corporations offer identical wares in Israeli shopping centers and California malls: Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Nine West and the like. And most restaurants in one place or the other feature such global favorites as hamburgers and fries, spicy pasta and elegant salads.
But the differences between the two locales are far more striking than their similarities. Jerusalem’s gold-hued stone buildings – most of them centuries old – bear little resemblance to the modernity in most of America’s suburban centers. One of the oldest and most picturesque places in Southern California – the chapel at the San Juan Capistrano Mission – dates to only 1776.
Meanwhile, the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City – built by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent” in the 1500s – surround the Temple Mount, the Roman Cardo, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mosque of Omar and dozens of other authentically ancient sites revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Outside those city walls, a sleek modern light rail is juxtaposed against a jumble of venerable boutiques and cafes and trailing flowers along the Jaffa Road (first paved in the 19th century), leading to Jaffa/Yafo, a Mediterranean port that has served seafarers for more than 7,000 years. Jaffa is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and in the historical writings of Josephus.
Still, buildings are only buildings, and of course it is people that bring cities to life. Health-conscious, hard-bodied California joggers, leashed to what some call “designer dogs,” are rarely sighted in Jerusalem, although scantily attired men and women do appear in the hot summer months.
These provide a rather jarring contrast to the modestly dressed Orthodox Jewish men and women in their dark colors and sober, weighty garb. Nor are Muslim women and girls, whether in brightly colored designer scarves or black hijabs, an unusual sight either, especially on the Eastern side of the city.
If there’s time for conversation with these various Jerusalemites, it doesn’t take long to learn of their experiences with war, terrorism, political disappointment or Holocaust history. Nearly everyone in the city has a story to tell – and there are countless broken hearts, half-healed wounds and deep scars. Yet, more often than not, a spirit of joy and celebration shines in their eyes.
In fact, it is here – in the stories of the people – that the contrast between my two familiar locales is most readily apparent.
In California, one of my usual stops is KBRT’s studio, where “The Bottom Line” talk radio host Roger Marsh often invites me in for an interview to discuss Israel and whatever the latest news about the Middle East may be.
It is during these radio interviews that I am most conscious of the fact that I live, for all practical purposes, in two different worlds. And that difference has to do with geography, but far more significantly with the rather messy details of human experience. Few Californians have had to face the threat of rocket fire, the danger of looming terrorism, the possibility of fleeing their homes or – worst of all – the loss of life, limb and loved ones.
These days, with the JCPOA – aka the “Iran Deal” – in the news, American Jews and Christians are expressing great concern for the future of Israel and the Jewish people who live there. And well they should.
“What is the American administration thinking?” Roger asked me in the course of our recent interview. I tried to answer, even though I can hardly imagine what kind of naiveté – or worse – has led to the unprecedented concessions that the U.S. (and other) negotiators have offered to Iran, seemingly on bended knee.
And at what human cost – apart from the billion-and-a-half dollars of unfrozen funds – will this agreement be signed, sealed and delivered?
To a large majority of Israelis, the danger of a nuclearized Iran – and ultimately a nuclear race involving several Middle East countries – is a very real threat. An enemy such as Iran – which habitually calls for “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” – is the last nation on earth that should have the capability of developing nuclear weapons. That is an insane proposition.
Many Californians like Roger and his listeners are aware of and concerned about the state of affairs in the Middle East. Admittedly, apart from the occasional earthquake, their experience with life-and-death challenges has been limited. Yet they want to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
For example, we of a certain age who attended California elementary schools remember getting on our knees under our little wooden desks and covering our heads with our arms when “bomb drills” took place. In retrospect, it seems like a laughable exercise in futility. But of course the bombs never fell, so we didn’t realized until years later that we would have more likely been instantly incinerated than bumped on the head by a fallen ceiling tile.
In Israel, air raid sirens are quite another matter. I have an app on my iPhone called a Red Alert that makes a nerve-wracking sound if there’s a rocket attack anywhere in Israel. It startles me about once a month, when a missile is fired from Gaza or the Golan. Thankfully, no such application is currently necessary in California or anywhere else in the United States. May it ever be so.
But curiously, as I took a break from writing this very article, my Israeli Red Alert went off – most inappropriately – in a California café! Sirens had sounded in another seaside city, half a world away. An hour or so later, the Times of Israel reported,
Sirens were activated in the Hof Asheklon regional council north of the [Gaza] Strip before sunrise, sending frightened residents running to shelters. There were no reports of casualties or damage. The Israeli military said it was scanning for an impact site, but added that the sirens were likely the result of a failed launch attempt.
In nine years, only three times have air raid sirens threatened my calm life in Jerusalem, and those were all during Israeli military operations in Gaza. In every case, the rockets fell far short of Jerusalem’s city limits. I was away in July 2014 when rockets launched at Jerusalem struck a little closer to home.
Also in 2014, just after I returned there and Israel ended its battle with Hamas, another drama was acted out in the Christian heartland of Iraq. This was just over an hour’s flight away from Jerusalem. Assyrian International News Service reported on Aug. 7,
The push of the Islamic State (IS) from Mosul north into the Nineveh Plain, the last stronghold of Assyrians in Iraq, has created fear and panic in the population, causing a massive exodus from Assyrian villages. The influx of refugees into Ankawa and Noohadra (Dohuk) has overwhelmed the towns. There is a shortage of everything — shelter, food, water. Displaced Assyrians are sleeping on sidewalks and in open fields.
In Israel, Christians and Jews alike were horrified by this unprovoked assault; by seeing houses roughly painted with the Arabic letter “N,” marking them for invasion and confiscation; and by the Iraqi army’s utter lack of protection. The soldiers were described as simply having “melted away.”
In late October 2014, I was able to fly from Israel to Iraq to visit those same Christian refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan.
I found myself in the midst of broken, displaced women, men and children, who all told me essentially the same story: how they have lost everything – their homes, businesses, all personal possessions, passports, deeds and documents of ownership, vehicles, cash and food. ISIS has robbed them of their past, as well as their hopes for the future. They said, in so many words, that prayer is all that remains for them, but so shattered are their lives that even faith and hope seem ephemeral.
Can we American Christians even begin to imagine such a cruel twist of fate? With notable exceptions, America has been shielded from such atrocities imposed by bloodthirsty religious fanatics.
Perhaps natural disasters come closest to inflicting the kind of total personal losses that Middle East populations are enduring today. Americans have recently recalled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the deadly storm that nearly drowned the city of New Orleans 10 years ago. More recently, brush and forest fires have ravished vast swathes of the West Coast, leaving a trail of ashes where family homes once stood. Floods and tornados took a terrible toll, too, not so many months ago.
Victims will struggle to rebuild, battling governmental authorities, insurance companies and the emotional hardships of starting over. And in most cases, they will find a way.
For the rest of us, all things considered, life is good. I’m grateful to hear the rush of the ocean tides’ coming and going and the cry of gulls: hours of gentleness in what can be a hard, unyielding world.
But I do miss Mt. Zion’s echoing bells, and am happy that I’ll soon be back in Jerusalem to hear them peal once again. Those chimes, the sound of the muezzin’s call to the city’s mosques, and the warning of the Red Alert all serve to remind me of the time and place in which my friends and I live.
Meanwhile, weeks like these in Southern California reaffirm the virtue of gratitude. May the habit of thankful prayer be our first priority. And may it never have to become our last resort.