Editor’s Note: Mariah Proctor is currently studying at the BYU Jerusalem Center.
“Those are the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem…” that’s what Bing Crosby’s honey voice would tell me every Christmas on a CD as the robust sound of knelling bells subsided and Bing prepared to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem. I’ve heard about the features of this city that I’m living in now, since I was born, but to actually be here I’ve been feeling like some foreign element that doesn’t quite belong. But I can’t bear the thought of just playing the silly tourist role for the next four months of my life.
This past Sunday was our first completely free day to be cut loose and explore the old city, but unfortunately I didn’t do the kind of research it takes to really know what there is to see, so my group spent much of the day just wandering. We were able to see Oskar Schindler’s grave, and we had the adventure of getting locked in a Franciscan monastery, but we still had a full day to kill, and I continued to feel like I was stopping at some port of call for a day rather than doing the kind of exploring that will make me a citizen of this place for the rest of my time here.
In the midst of our wanderings, we ended up in the Jewish quarter in an art shop ironically named the “oil press” art gallery. We’d passed a million interesting places without venturing in, but the faade of this place gleamed with rough, but beautiful mosaics of Old Testament stories and the idea of the corresponding beauty within was too much to pass up. When we entered, the man at the front desk gave us a little nod, shalom, and perhaps said a word or two about “if we needed anything…” and then left it at that. We browsed as only great lovers of art with no money can, and eventually came to a painting, directly next to the man at the desk, of a rabbi, bathed in golden light, and playing a violin as the wind is catching the few free strands of his hair into a tangle.
My reverie was interrupted by the man at the desk saying “I’m not sure why I want to tell you this but…” and he proceeded to tell us about his mother (who was portrayed, with her weathered face and threadbare headscarf, in a painting on the wall behind us) and the way that she had walked all the way from Uzbekistan to come to Jerusalem. He talked about what that must’ve taken from her, and about how he was worried that that story would be lost in the next generation.
He then went on to talk about the struggle of the Jewish people, and how resilient and innovative they have always been, and what they’ve contributed to this world. I know that the other side of this sore struggle claims similar resilience and achievement, but the important thing was that the passion in this man’s eyes—the life and fervor that I encountered in this most unexpected of places–ushered me into my life in Jerusalem as no other thing has been able to in my time here so far.
Until that moment, I had felt as I did looking at the painting of the rabbi. I admired the vitality and reality of the picture and the eagerness of its tenant. I loved it even, but remained an onlooker, doomed to be eternally outside of the frame. But this man who “didn’t know why” he wanted to tell us these things was, no doubt, moved upon by the Spirit to unwittingly reach out a hand and pull me into the frame of this beloved city, so that I could finally feel like I belonged.
Members of the Church that tour mosques and synagogues and sites sacred to other religions tend to make the mistake of thinking that these places are not important. Some may even look around and start to feel uncomfortable with what appears to them to be some kind of false worshipping. But I have learned in my short time in this city that the Spirit can touch all kinds of people, and that devotion and true religious ardor are not limited to one religion alone.
One of my favorite things about my new home is the call to prayer that echoes from the minarets of the mosques all around the city, over and over every day. Muslims are asked to pray five times a day, but the various mosques don’t have consistent times to play the calls, so they happen frequently, and sometimes on top of each other. I’ve started sleeping through the 4am call to prayer, but I love when it gets to be about 7pm and time for the sunset call to prayer. I have a narrow window next to my bed, and if no one else is around, I gently pull it open and just lay there, feeling the cool air coming off of the desert and listening to the intoxicating sound of the devotion of the people of this city that I’m now a part of, to our God.