‘These are for my brother, Butch,’ my friend, Terry, enthused. She had begun snapping pictures almost as soon as we slid into the row near the back of the crowded auditorium. ‘He’d love this.’
Taking pictures inside a church, with a service going on, seemed sacrilegious to me. As a Jew, it was something I would never have done in a synagogue.
As a Jew, I shouldn’t be here at all.
Clearly things were different in Christian worship, starting with the unexpected wave of human warmth that hit me in the face as we stepped into this former cinema, located in the basement of a somewhat seedy, Jerusalem shopping mall. The location felt weird. You don’t find synagogues in basements. The rule is that nothing, other than the synagogue ceiling, is supposed to come between the Almighty and the worshipper.
Everything else was weird, too. People were on their feet, waving their arms. Pop praise was being sung and played on electric guitars and drums. There were no hymn sheets or prayer books: all the words were flashed up on a screen behind the band. They were in English not Hebrew, even though we were in Israel.
The atmosphere in my home synagogue back in England was nothing like this. It was formal and detached. Most of the service was in Hebrew.
As for the synagogue Terry and I had visited here in Jerusalem on Friday night, well, for all the welcome anyone gave us there, we might have been invisible. In fact, Terry, who loved mystique, had suggested we might actually have been rendered invisible during our time there.
The fact that she had accompanied me then was the only reason I was here now, at Sunday evening worship in a Christian church.
The music paused. We were invited to greet those around us. I introduced myself to a German man on my right and an Irish-looking man — with tweeds, jug ears and tight ginger curls — in the row in front.
Another man was making his way toward us, weaving through the people in the back row, immediately behind us. His appearance was shabby. He wore a black raincoat over an ankle-length tunic and sandals on his feet. His beard was ragged, his long, black hair untidy.
Beaming broadly, he shook our hands. It was as if he had been looking out for us, as if we were expected. His surprising air of authority led me to take him for an eccentric elder, even though his appearance didn’t seem to fit with this middle-class, Canadian-led congregation.
The music struck up again and I soon forgot him as everyone started singing and praising God. Sweet music was all around me. In one ear, Terry’s voice, deep and resonant and full of soul, gave the lie to her Barbie doll topknot and petite frame. In the other was my German neighbour, a hearty baritone.
The singing was stirring. I found myself feeling grateful to be here, grateful for this moment.
Now I noticed the Irish-looking man in the row in front of me. As he praised God, he was giving out what I can only describe as invisible waves of energy. They rose like a vapour to envelop me. Their effect was to fill me with electricity, yet, paradoxically, they also made me relax, like I was leaning back into a warm bath.
I let out a long sigh as the love given out by the congregation overwhelmed me. Tears sprang to my eyes and a lump formed in my throat. I remained very still as the world around me moved.
I wanted more of this balm, more of this acute awareness of love. I put out a hand to connect with the man in front, to touch his shoulder… but withdrew, not daring to go that far.
‘Hineini,’ I whispered.
This is Hebrew for here I am, a phrase found over and over in the Bible. God often told his followers hineini. Abraham, Jacob and Moses said hineini when they responded to His call.
Ahead of this trip, I had been telling God hineini. After five years of sickness that included cancer, my marriage had crumpled and my business had failed. I had been living alone for eighteen months, wondering what to do.
Hineini was my plea for a fresh start. I wanted some meaning and purpose.
My friend and fellow traveller, Terry, was also looking for something. We first met when holidaying with our respective kids in Alberta twenty years before. We hit it off straight away, even though we were about as different as any two friends could be. She was small, I was tallish. She was blond, I was dark. But our differences went way beyond the physical. She was a dreamer, I was a pragmatist. Though she was living just outside Vancouver at the time, she was a country girl from rural New Brunswick, Canada. I was from fast-paced London, England. She was a Christian, I was a Jew.
We both loved the Land of Israel and viewed it as God’s home. When I told her of my plans to make Israel the destination of my spiritual quest, she initially called me a ‘stinker’. A few days later, she announced she was coming along with me.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy place in the world for Jews, she had added two notes of her own to the pleas on scraps of paper that flutter in the cracks between the stones. One of them was a prayer given to her by that same brother she had eagerly snapped photos for when we came in. The other was her own message, which, she told me, said, ‘I’m your girl’. I thought that sounded pretty much the same as ‘hineini’.
Our search had taken us all over Israel, without any clear idea what it was we were hoping to find. We had seen some stunningly beautiful places but found little evidence of spirituality in the cars and Coca Cola hoardings of this rapidly westernising country.
Now, tonight, something special was happening. And it was happening in a Christian church, of all places.
The music stopped again and everyone sat down. A guest preacher, a pastor from Germany, began to speak. His English was so bad and his accent so thick that I thought him brave to stand up and use it.
His subject matter was stirring, however. He talked to us about healing, about mending divisions, about forgiveness and becoming peacemakers. The idea of becoming a peacemaker appealed to me, though I realised that my first step in that direction would mean forgiving my former husband, which I would find a very hard call. Even though I knew that an unforgiving attitude was keeping me in a sticky place and preventing me from moving on, there did not seem to be very much I could do about it.
As he began his closing prayer, he broke off to say, ‘I feel that there is a woman here tonight who wants to become a child. May she become one.’
I was pretty sure he was getting mixed up with his verbs and using the German verb bekommen, which means ‘to get’. He thought he was reassuring a woman who wanted to get pregnant. But it spoke to me and seemed like a right mistake: I was the woman who wanted to become a child. If only someone would take me by the hand and lead me.
All too soon, it seemed, people were getting to their feet and putting on their coats. (It can be cold in Jerusalem in March. Ten days before, when we arrived, it was snowing.)
I had not wanted to come and now I didn’t want to leave. I remained in my seat, with the power I had absorbed still flowing through me. The service had closed with an invitation to go up to the 24/7 Prayer Tower. I hoped with all my heart that Terry would be willing to go there with me.
She didn’t seem in any hurry to get going. As the place emptied, she continued sitting quietly beside me, reviewing the photographs on her camera’s digital display. Like me, she seemed bewildered. In fact, she was frowning.
I was about to ask her why when the Irish-looking man pulled up his collar. He was poised to brave the cold outside. I had to tell him. Having no idea what I was going to say, I watched my hand reach out to touch his elbow.
‘I could feel your faith, washing over me,’ I said.
To my relief, he didn’t smirk.
‘It was special,’ he agreed. ‘There were angels here tonight.’ His accent was North American, not Irish at all.
He turned towards the exit. ‘God bless you.’
‘God bless you,’ I replied. The unfamiliar words hung like pebbles in my mouth.
Terry looked up, her eyes like saucers. ‘There were angels here tonight, Bobbie. They’re in my camera!’
She held it out for me to take.
I studied the digital display. The first picture was of a military tank we saw in the Jaffa Road, immediately before we came in. There was nothing remarkable about it, beyond the presence of a tank in a downtown shopping street.
The next picture, taken here, where we now sat, was something else entirely.
There were no worshippers or rows of blue chairs. There was no stage or band, none of the wood panelling around the edge of the room. There were none of the things that Terry had pointed her camera at as she captured a feel of this place for her brother, Butch. All that could be seen was a swathe of buttery gold, with a thick ridge running through the centre, like the vein of a feather, close up.
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Genre - Faith Memoir
Rating – PG
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