Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Two Jews and a Muslim in Bethlehem

In October 1998, when I was living in Israel, I went to Jerusalem for a few days to visit Ellen, a woman I knew who lived there. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I'd like to see Bethlehem, which is only about 20 minutes away.

First, we stopped at an Arab village to meet a Palestinian friend of Ellen's who would go with us. Her friend and his father and brothers had done renovation work on her home. She and her children had stayed overnight in the village. I don't think this is something an Israeli would typically do, but Ellen was an American who'd been married to an Israeli.

So, I met Yusuf and his family. We stopped at the little grocery store that his parents ran. I saw the house they were building for all their children, their spouses and grandchildren. Then the three of us, two Jews and Muslim, piled in Ellen's car and headed to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is like a lot of places I've seen in the Middle East. It just looks ancient, with stone buildings and dusty streets. I don't think there are too many Christians left in this mostly Muslim town. A huge mosque sits across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity.

The church doesn't look like much from the outside. The main entrance and windows were blocked off during the Middle Ages. But inside, it's very ornate and kind of dark, with lots of candles and columns and icons and mosaics on the floors. The spot where Jesus was born is marked by a star in the floor of a little grotto, and tourists crowd around it taking pictures.

I'm not really a very religious or spiritual person, but sometimes I do envy people who have that kind of faith. I think it can be very comforting in difficult times. And there was just something so poignant about watching all of these people, many of whom I think were American tourists, who'd come such a long way to huddle around this little spot on the floor. I'm sure it just meant the world to them.

For me, the best part of the trip came afterward. Ellen, Yusuf and I went to a little cafe and sat outside and ate all kinds of delicious pastries. There wasn't a great deal of interaction between Jews and Arabs then, and there's probably even less today. But just seeing the level of trust they had for each other, their friendship, is something I've never forgotten.

I have no idea whether Ellen and Yusuf are still friends or even in touch. But it's a memory worth recalling. That's my Bethlehem story. I wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

No comments: