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Orthodox Jewish author learns to pray with the neighbors

Orthodox Jewish author learns to pray with the neighbors

By James D. Davis
Religion Editor

October 22, 2001

They say the Holy Land breeds miracles. If Yossi Klein Halevi had any doubts, they were settled when he found himself walking around Jerusalem after Holy Week with customary kippa on his head and uncustomary cross on his chest.

Christians were, after all, the enemy, the cross their emblem. Yet there he was, bearing it as a positive symbol of understanding. It was a high point in a trek not through streets or wilderness, but through religious frontiers.

For two years, Halevi visited Muslim and Christian communities in his homeland. He learned to accept them, and they in turn welcomed him. And all without removing the skullcap marking him as an Orthodox Jew.

"Until now, almost all the dialogue between Jews and Christians has focused on talking to each other," says Halevi, 47, who chronicles his journey in his new book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden (William Morrow, $25). "I wanted to test if it were possible for Jews and Christians and Muslims simply to pray together. And that's not something we do. We're afraid of each other's prayers."

Halevi, who will speak at two South Florida venues during Jewish Book Month, came by his writing credentials as honestly as his religious ones. He studied journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois before moving to Jerusalem in 1982, where he became a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He also writes on Israeli affairs for The New Republic and the Los Angeles Times.

But it was in writing about the spiritual landscape that he found one of his greatest challenges. How to add to the reams of words on history, politics, theology, social issues -- all the questions that never seem to get resolved?

His first inspiration: Don't write dispassionately.

"I was going to write about all three religions," Halevi says by phone from Jerusalem. "Then I thought, wait a minute. I am a religious Jew. The book should be about me. About how a religious Jew encounters the faiths of my neighbors."

His second inspiration: Don't write about words but experiences.

"The book is experiential, not philosophical or theological," he says. "I wanted to find common expressions of prayer. And maybe to experience something of the divine presence together."

Structuring his research around the Muslim and Christian holy days, Halevi decided meditation offered the best hope. That quest took him to holy sites and communities that might have been on alien worlds for a Brooklyn-raised Orthodox boy.

One stop was a Sufi mosque in the Nuseirat Palestinian refugee camp, which he called "the scariest place I've ever been." As an Israeli soldier, he'd been struck on the head by a rock while patrolling that very camp. But the Sufis, heirs of a medieval mystical tradition, accepted him into their zikr, or remembrance service.

Still wearing his kippa, Halevi learned to chant in Arabic, leap and dance in what he called a "series of controlled steps toward ecstasy. It was a part of a carefully coordinated procedure, a sensation of hysteria without losing control. One of the most extraordinary forms of prayer."

At one point, Halevi says, he had something like an out-of-body experience. "You merge with the people in the line. You're no longer an individual; you're part of a circle."

In that transcendent moment, he was convinced he felt the presence of God."Whatever God wanted to happen would happen. I didn't belong to myself."

For Christians, Halevi chose a convent of meditative nuns near Jerusalem. Again he found himself immersed in a surreal experience.

He had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the cavernous, domed shrine believed to shelter the gravesite of Jesus. But meditating with these sisters, he somehow felt like the Holy Sepulchre was filling him, the rotunda area filling his chest.

"I was brought up in a tradition where we were forbidden to enter a church. Yet there, I felt the ultimate church enter me. I felt a tikkun, a healing, for the unnatural rupture between us."

But one more hurdle remained: a "phobia of the cross," a deep trauma reaching back centuries, when the Christian symbol was carried by inquisitors and crusaders.

To try to get past that, he forced himself into the worst-case scenario. Holy Week, the series of observances -- especially Good Friday and Easter -- for Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. "Ground Zero for the Jewish fear of Christianity," Halevi calls it.

He chose Jerusalem's small but thriving Armenian community, descended from survivors of the Turkish genocide of 1915. The climax actually came the week after Easter, when he attended St. James Cathedral for the anniversary of the genocide. Halevi froze up when he saw a young girl in the courtyard pinning commemorative crosses on participants. "I can't do that," he remembers thinking, and instead turned aside to see a photo exhibit that was part of the commemoration.

One photo drew his shocked attention: the corpse of a young girl, with a cross carved into her chest. "Then it hit me: This is the Armenian version of the Yellow Star," he says. He turned back to the girl with the crosses and asked her to pin a cross onto him.

Despite the chain of remarkable events, Halevi isn't sure his approach would work for everyone. As an Israeli, he lives in a Jewish majority with Christian and Muslim minorities -- the opposite of everywhere else, where Jews live as a minority with Christian or Muslim majorities.

But he insists that talking less and praying more is a valid alternative to the endless talk. "We keep arguing about what Christians and Muslims believe -- the popes, the Holocaust -- 2,000 years of poisoned words. What we haven't had is silence. As soon as I tried that, I felt things falling into place."

James D. Davis can be reached at jdavis@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4730.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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