Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Deep Cover of Humanity


I practically swallowed my sweet mint tea the wrong way the other day while paying a visit to Noora, my elderly Arabic tutor in Bethlehem. In the two years I have known her, I have never once claimed to be Jewish. It was certainly no lie to say that I come from good Christian folks and that I was raised as a Catholic. Though the words "raised" and "Catholic" may be a little bit of a stretch, it is certainly no fabrication that my parents were married in a Catholic ceremony and that I was baptized by a bona fide priest of the Catholic Church. It is also no lie that I know a great deal of the Catholic catecism by heart and that my head possesses an entire repertoire of Jesus camp tunes, where, in the early 1990s, I was once re-baptized at the age of 13 by a nice, bearded man named "Father John the Baptist" in a lake somewhere below the Mason Dixon line of the United States of America.

Even still, I came close to choking during our conversation when Noora addressed me by my given name in its Hebrew pronunciation. The only people who ever pronounce my name this way are strangers in Israel who see my name as it is written in Hebrew and pronounce it without the vowels. Aside from a few people here and there, including my former dissertation advisor who was (not coincidentally) also Israeli-- I have never been generally called by the Hebrew pronunciation, and Noora has always used the voweled pronounciation of my name.

Hearing her say it differently immediately caught me off guard. The sound was a signal, a warning of sorts. I knew it in an instant and caught Noora watching my face for a reaction. Carefully, I gave her my classic look of linguistic ignorance. Much like a dog cocking its ear to the television set, my expression read, "I can hear you, but the sound you are making means nothing to my brain." As she does with the difficult Arabic words she has taught me in the past, she reiterated my name slowly and deliberately with the Hebrew pronunciation in her Arabic accent, then explained that this is my name in Hebrew. Again, I gave her a fake, reluctant smile and shrugged my shoulders at the sound while wondering if my perfectly good cover was blown?

In Arabic, she asked in her teacher voice if I knew the biblical story of my name and where it comes from? I answered that I always loved the story of the woman from the Bible for whom I am named--

"Is this name a popular name in America?," she asked.

"It is an old name, not popular, but it is well-known and respected because it comes from the Bible," I said, emphasing the word "Bible".

"It must be very popular among the Jews in America?," she stated rhetorically.

"Maybe," I replied evenly with a little shrug. "Since Jews and Christians share the Bible, it is a common name for both. Christians also use this name for girls in America."

My answer was decidedly too diplomatic. It was clear that it was not the response that she was looking for. So she tried again.

"So there is no one in your family who calls you {Insert Hebrew Pronunciation} as opposed to {Insert Western Pronunciation}?," she persisted.

I smiled, looked her in the eye, and said: "No. No one. Never."

Again, another honest answer.

The subject of dancing around the question of my Jewishness without asking it directly was inevitably dropped.

As I left that day, I worried. I worried about my reluctance to be forthright with Noora from the start, but quickly remembered my reasons for this at the time. The truth was that I was never egotistical enough to think that it was my job to come to Palestine to prove to the good Palestinian folks who lost their homes in 1948 and again in 1967 that a Jewish person might also be a good will ambassador of sorts. Being openly Jewish while living deep in the heart of a Palestinian refugee camp would not have been the most intelligent way to ensure positive relations among and between the people who generously hosted me. Although I will never fully know if openly saying that I was Jewish would have barred me from entry into certain homes and conversations, I can say that I already felt handicapped by my status as a foreigner. Palestinian people are overly welcoming, incredibly hospitable and entirely too polite. As such, it took a long time to get them to open up and actually allow me to join their daily lives, in order to understand their fears, superstitions and struggles.

The truth is that I made the decision to keep my faith out of my politics, and, more importantly, out of my work with human beings. There is important work to do here, and none of it involves how or where any single one of us happens to pray. Even if it is a little bit ironic that my Judaism has actually become that much deeper and observant (for me) over the past two years, I cannot say that my personal affiliation as a Jewish person has made me look at the Palestinian question any differently. If anything, my faith has enabled me to deeply contemplate where I situate myself within my work. At the end of the day, my faith in something actually makes it easier to sleep at night in light of all of the things that could otherwise lend themselves to nightmares. Of course, where some Jewish folks might hide behind their Jewish identity as a way to avoid having any contact with others (like Gentiles and Arabs, for example), I fail to think that life is interesting this way. Like the Buddhist phrase, "The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon", I see my Jewishness in much of the same light. I'm the finger, not the moon. Even better, I am a tiny, extremely unimportant piece of the mosaic, not at all an iconic or self-appointed representative of The Chosen People as a whole.

In the unrelenting sun, I made my way back through the crowded streets of Bethlehem. In two years, I have never felt so aware of my own self-consciousness as I paused to wonder if the people around me also wondered if I am a Jew, too? Certainly, they would readily dismiss the idea entirely. After all, no Jewish girl in her right mind would venture, let alone wander through the West Bank alone. Defiantly, I made my way to the Israeli checkpoint at the top of Bethlehem, where I was stopped in line by a child solder behind his bullet proof glass.

"Give me your identification," he said in a thick Israeli accent.

I slid my American passport through the hole in the window. He took it and slowly flipped through the pages before he looked at the page with my image and name.

"You know you have a Hebrew name, the name of a queen" he said. He held up the passport in the light. I watched as his eyes went from focusing on my picture in the book to looking at my actual face behind the glass. When his eyes registered on me he added with a smile, "And a pretty Jewish face, a face of a Jewish queen."

"I know," I instantly purred back at him. Despite my exhaustion, I gave him my best of my cheeky smiles and added flirtatiously, "I am soooo lucky!"

"To be alive," he sharply quipped back. With his remark, he made a pejorative hand reference to the unaware men standing behind me in line.

"But aren't we all lucky to be alive today? Such a blessing!," I purred back rhetorically without blinking. He rewarded my sarcasm by returning my passport. Back to business, I formally told him to have a good day.

Beyond the checkpoint, I jumped on the 4 shekel bus with a load of Palestinian men from Bethlehem, with whom I had waited in line. The bus was full, and one of the men generously gave up his seat for me. Another offered to share a plum with me from the large bag he was carrying. The man in the seat in front of me asked if his window was blowing too much air on my face. We chatted in Arabic, and they complimented me on my knowledge of their language.

"You speak Arabic very well!!," said one.

"So do you!," I said back.

Everyone around us laughed at my joke.

Of course, anyone else might have been very alarmed to see a Jewish girl cruising across the Green Line in a bus filled with only Arab men. But, of course, that person would have missed out on all of the fun...of simply being human.



Unknown said...

I have a big smile from reading how you recognize,live in, and rejoice in these moments of humanity. It's not something many can identify with. This story reminds me of a time I shared a small compartment on a train crossing the Kosovo border with 4 elderly women. I'll miss these stories.

Anonymous said...

A long time reader/lurker here. I never comment because you say it all yourself. But I am in agreement with the above that your stories will be missed. Though I look forward to seeing them in print one day and turning to my kids and saying, "I read Namaste when..."

Good luck with whatever you do, kiddo. Over the years, I feel like I can say this to you, like you are someone I have grown to know well through your writing. You've got a good head on your shoulders, an deep spirit and a mental sharpness that the rest of us envy and applaud. You write the kind of stories that I tell my friends about. That, to me, is a sign of a gifted person. I just hope you know this and understand the impact that you have in your writing and thoughtful words.

Alicat said...

You & I have sooo much to talk about! This story reminds me of my own budding path toward Buddhist principles, and my favorite new mantra -- by which I try to live my life now -- "All you need is already within you." This reminds me of the blessing you always carry with you of how lucky we are to be alive and how you are so good at embracing the little moments in life. I think your writing helps you do that, no? So I hope you continue to do it even if you aren't sharing it.