Wissot: Visiting Israel and Jordan is like coming home to a place I’ve never been (column)
The wailing sound of the call to prayers from the nearby mosque interrupted my restful sleep. It was 5 a.m., and I was in bed in my hotel room in Petra, Jordan. It was the last day of a 12-day tour of Israel and Jordan, two places I’d never been.
The trip began in Tel Aviv. My wife and I had flown to Israel to run the Jerusalem Marathon, a few days after our arrival. We have flown together to run marathons around the world for the past 25 years.
I’d never had a burning desire to visit Israel. I can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s because I’ve always traced my ancestry back to Eastern European Jewry, Poland and Russia, specifically. The holy lands, which are certainly where that Jewish ancestry sprang, were never on my must-do travel list.
Perhaps that’s because I’m a secular non-practicing Jew. I don’t associate my being Jewish entirely with Judaism. Of course, my ethnicity originated with Judaism, but over the course of centuries, a rich Jewish cultural and intellectual tradition developed in Europe and elsewhere that was not beholden to prayer, worship or synagogue attendance. I see myself as part of that tradition.
I saw some amazing sights during my time in both Israel and Jordan. There were the famous religious gems in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were said to take place, and the Western Wall, the holiest of prayer sites in the world for Jews. There were places I only know about from biblical history, like the village of Nazareth where Jesus was from and Masada, the desert fortress where almost 1,000 Jews in 70 A.D. committed suicide rather than be forced into slavery by Roman legionnaires.
I floated in the Dead Sea and waded in the Jordan River. In Jordan, I hiked the desert trail through the rose-hued petrified burial tombs of Petra and viewed the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt from across the Gulf of Aqaba.
And yet what I will take away from these most memorable of experiences is not the postcard-perfect places I visited but the kinship I felt with the people I met. For someone like myself, growing up Jewish in America always meant being a minority in a country where Jews comprised less than 3 percent of the population.
In Israel, I was in a country where the vast majority of the people were Jewish. To my amazement, I didn’t look different from everybody else. Here, most people looked like me: Jewish. I was not a member of an ethnic minority. I was a member of an ethnic majority.
I walked the streets and saw myself coming and going: people with my Hebraic nose, lips and ears. People who all ate the same foods I grew up eating: the cheese blintzes, the challah bread and the halavah candy; people who acted like they ran the country because, in fact, they did. People who didn’t have to be asked where they came from because they were living in the place that they came from more than 5,000 years ago.
I felt what it must be like for people of Italian ancestry to travel to Italy, of Greek ancestry to visit Greece and German ancestry to vacation in Germany. I felt myself part of a group that represented an entire country, an entire civilization, an important time in history. I felt more of a sense of joy and kinship in being Jewish than ever before.
I met both Christian and Muslim Arabs in the places I visited. The same call to prayers that I heard that morning in Petra can be heard coming from the mosques in the predominantly Israeli Arab towns of Nazareth and Akko, as well as the cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Political intolerance may be the norm in Israel when it comes to the various Jewish and Arab factions, but tolerance is practiced when it comes to the freedom to worship in the synagogue, church or mosque of your choice.
Our guide in Jordan was named George, a Jordanian Christian of Palestinian descent. There are very few Jews living in Jordan. They are not banned from living there, but after both the wars of 1948 and 1967, where Jordan lost much of the land to Israel now contested in Jerusalem and the West Bank, their presence is not welcomed. Jews are prohibited from becoming citizens or owning land under Jordanian law (“Allowed but Unwelcome: The Jews of Jordan,” Mosaic Magazine, May 8, 2015).
George taught me the Arabic phrase used to meet and greet someone throughout the Arab world: Salaam alaikum, which roughly translates to “come and go in peace.” Israeli Jews have a similar greeting in Hebrew: Shalom aleichem. It also is a call to come and go in peace. For two cultures living in close proximity to and hostility toward one another for thousands of years, there is hope found in both of their languages for the one prized outcome that eludes them as people.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.