Monday, May 31, 2010

Holy of Holies

Jerusalem is the first place I've been in a long time -- a long time -- that made me feel truly uncomfortable: out of my element, exposed, trespassing. At best a temporary guest, politely tolerated (look, we've brought out the good china; watch you don't use the wrong fork). The conflicts here are not mine, the passion is not mine, the rapture and sense of belonging don't grip me, not even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the lines of tourists and the prostrating nuns and the strange lighting that made me turn my eyes, bewildered, toward my host (not Host of Hosts) asking for some clue as to what I should be feeling in that sickly, banal atmosphere. Religion here grows like profane barnacles on the sacred.

But what do I know. I'm just some vaguely Protestant girl who's spent the majority of the past ten years bowing to brass mirrors.

Sabbath dinner is with friends of a friend: an orthodox Jewish family. I feel far too bright and far too blonde. The women's faces are animated and friendly in sharp contrast with their funereal dress. I'm not sure my friend warned them that I was not of their tribe, but they are smiling and pleasant as they make room at the table. It's a curiously generous though closed gesture, like being allowed on stage yet not taking part in the performance.

The wife passes around wine in little silver cups. Lifting my cup with two fingers and sliding a third beneath the bottom to tilt it fully back, something about the muscle movement and the taste recalls a childhood memory of taking communion in Texas: feeling very grown up but somehow not quite big enough for the pew and trying not to spill a little plastic cup of grape juice lifted off of a silver tray. The recollection is so overwhelming that I involuntarily jerk the cup back from my mouth and stare at it dumbly. The woman next to me sees me start and misunderstands the reason. "I know it tastes like grape juice, but it's wine," she assures me. I'm too stunned by the memory to explain.

At work on Monday I hear about the attack on the flotilla. People are marching in Amman in protest, and the Embassy asks us to keep a low profile. Walking home, I try to be vigilant, but my mind is engaged in a peripatetic ramble of its own and gets distracted by the pastoral scene of a flock of sheep grazing in an open field by the road. I slow my stride to watch their black muzzles tear at the grass, only just noticing the shepherd with his switch in time to say 'Good Evening' before we pass one another. In this same field just last week they were shearing the sheep. Moving in the opposite direction, I had stopped on the way to work to watch them clip the fleece and bag the raw wool. The sure snip-snip sound of the shears was strangely gentle and calming in the morning. Each sheep had lunged up drunkenly from the ground the moment its turn was over, scurrying naked and trembling back to its flock.

Maybe that sense of exposure is what I've been missing.