From Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Zelda

This  morning I walked past the Armenian shop and café I’ve been meaning to visit- its owned by an Armenian woman I want to be friends with, my age-  down the rosemary lined path from the Old City Zion Gate, looking out over the windmill, red roofs, stone buildings,  the valley of David’s City and beyond,  hailed the “Arab bus” number 124 on Hebron Road, across from the Cinemateque. This bus carries mainly Palestinians back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, through the checkpoint, and also it looks to me that Palestinians use this bus line within Jerusalem, separate from the Egged bus that Israelis take.

I arrived at the Bethlehem checkpoint just as the clear blue sky darkened and rain came pouring out. Walking through the checkpoint for me, with my.U.S. passport, is a lot like going through customs with no luggage.  My issue was negotiating the downpour without an umbrella or coat. Luckily, in the center of  the group of taxi drivers waiting to bring people to Bethlehem, a driver held a giant multi colored beach umbrella. He escorted me to the car that was waiting for me. Shukran- thanks, as I climbed in.

I was early enough this morning for Toine, the Dutch staff person from the organization AEI,, that is sponsoring the NVC classes, to take me back to his family’s apartment in Bethlehem for a home cooked breakfast. Toine is married to a Palestinian woman. They have lived together in Bethlehem for over 12 years and have two daughters, both born there. Because Toine has a Dutch passport, he can travel freely into Jerusalem. His wife cannot, without a special visa. They tend to go less and less because it’s been so unpleasant for them at the checkpoint, including a time when his daughter, at age 8 or 9,  had to strip down to her underwear in front of the people and the soldiers.

I was shocked, really stunned, to take in the pain of this young girl and her mother, to have this happen. And also, for the children to witness Palestinian men at the checkpoint stripped down, spread eagle against the wall. I can imagine, and I can’t really imagine,  the helplessness, hopelessness, as  a parent, having this happen, not being able to protect my child,  from this trauma,  just to get to the zoo or a concert, or to visit family, 20 minutes away.

I am feeling fear and despair hearing this, not having hope or trust that peace can come to our two peoples.

All this, just before we take a taxi to the site of the NVC class.

I begin the class this week with an NVC meditation- guiding us internally, to check in how we are feeling in this moment. In our bodies, and what emotions are associated with the feelings. Several women share that they always have knots in their stomachs, from stress and worry. We breathe into the knots, embracing them, holding them in the way that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches.

Then we use the feelings and needs sheets from to connect the bodily sensations with what we are needing. Security, peace, acceptance….

Then we have a go around and I ask the women to look at the feelings charts to see how they are feeling in this moment. Every one participated and everyone, even a woman who comes in late because she has just had a gall bladder operation and had to call a friend to come over to zip up her boots so she could come out on this rainy winter day- even she, says she feels happy and excited. I feel overjoyed to take in how excited and enthused they are for this class.

We continue to work on and practice self connection and then move to giving each other empathy. The first scenario that was volunteered was a woman who said she felt upset this week because she spent an hour and a half cooking a dish, and she forgot to put salt in it, so she felt worried that her husband and son wouldn’t eat it. We guessed that she felt worried because she really wanted nourishment for them. Yes, and after she connected with that she said, she was upset when they wouldn’t eat it, because  she wanted acknowledgment and understanding that she had done her best.

We all talked about how important it is to connect with your feelings- to not be afraid of them- to take care of your feelings, to give them “an empathy bath”- otherwise, if we are afraid of our feelings, and stuff them, they will come out another time, another way, likely in anger or even violence.

Back to the unsalty meal, the woman’s friend said, to her, you know you can add salt after its cooked.  I asked that women to try giving her friend empathy- instead of advice ( you know you can add salt); many women joined in, helping her guess her friend’s feelings and needs ( she herself had said them so it was easy), that she wanted understanding and acceptance, acknowledgment for her effort.

Then I said, lets explore something together- let’s gather information- I asked the first woman which felt better- the empathy or the advice. She was clear the empathy. Just to have the space to feel what she felt and to have us understand it.  We shared how. As women, we often give advice and suggestions, out of our own need for love and friendship and support- and how often that’s not what the person really wants.

Now the room was cooking! Women were giving each other empathy for different things, and talking about how this was working to transform judgment into connection.

Then I asked if anyone had tried this during the week.   One woman,  C.,   said she had done the home work- giving herself empathy, self connection, about a difficult situation in her life- She read, in English and Arabic, what she had written. She began by writing,”  I feel upset and disappointed that my family decided not to leave when the Separation Wall around Rachael’s Tomb was built around our house. I am afraid now, I am worried about the aggression this has produced in my children, the frustration. We can’t sell our house, which has been in our family for generations, and also houses our business, and it’s terrible to live this way with the military peering into our  homes, lives. We have no air, no light, no privacy, no space.”

Thanks to my preparation yesterday with Hagit, I was able to stay with C. , giving empathy to how she was feeling, the freedom and choice and space she was longing for.
Space! The connection between space and freedom was never so alive for me.

Others chimed in, adding to her story, giving her empathy.

The class was already running beyond the end time ( 2 ½ hours), so I said to everyone that what we are practicing can be used with ourself, within the family, to bring peace within the Palestinian people, and , ultimately, I feel strongly, to help bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

At that point, one of the women said, I want to learn Hebrew so I can speak directly to Israelis. A number of other women raised their hands- me too they were saying, I want to learn Hebrew so we can talk.

We ended the class and a group stayed around to talk about  how they wanted to learn Hebrew so they could have direct dialogue with Israelis.

One woman, G.,  is a nurse. She used to work in a hospital, in a maternity ward, in Jerusalem. I don’t know why this has stopped. She talked about how important it is to her to have direct contact with Israelis, so each side  can develop understanding. “I don’t  want my heart to become hard.”  She needs direct contact for that. She invited me to her house, which I hope to visit in a few weeks.

She said to me, your voice is very important; mine is not. I and the other women said, no, your voice  is very important. Then she spoke about forgiveness. How direct contact and dialogue between Palestinian and Israelis is crucial so they can all move toward forgiveness. Before 2000, they lived and worked together; had friendships; now it is worse than ever.

This is what I have head from a number of Palestinians this week. That life for them is  worse than ever. Economically, socially, several women spoke about the empty future for their children- no opportunity in Palestine, no opportunity to work in Israel, discrimination in other countries.  Another women I met on the “Arab bus” back to Jerusalem from Bethlehem,  told me how her family had lost their house in Baka’a ( a section in Jerusalem I have walked through)  in 1948- during the civil war, her grandmother fled the house  with the bread dough sitting out to rise- she thought they’d be back in a few hours. Now there are people from Russia or  the U.S  ( she said) living there.  She lives in the Old City with her two children. Her husband is from the West Bank and is not allowed to travel to see them without a permit, which was, for example, denied during the Ramadan family feast. She could move to the West Bank, but her children are in school in Jerusalem and she doesn’t want to give up this second house they have settled in.

I hope to go to visit her in this house in the Old City which is a few alleys, and lifetimes  away from where I am staying in the Jewish Quarter.

I feel conflicted writing all of this  because I am concerned that it is heard and read and understood in a way that contributes to awareness of the people‘s experiences here- not to foment blame and hate. Not to add to the separation.

I have to stay confident that sharing my experiences , just as I hear them, somehow contributes to growing awareness and hearts opening. It’s scary because I  am afraid that people will read this and blame the Jews or the Israelis- and I  don’t see it that way, I see that hopelessness and frustration over meeting  needs for safety and security are what generates strategies like building walls and suicide bombings. At times I too have even seen the wall as a strategy that is saving lives on both sides- the young people who blow themselves up and all who get killed along with them. That has stopped.

It is so hard to hear the stories of how the wall is impacting people day to day. And to not forget the fear and violence that led people to build the wall.

Things are happening here, many things we don’t hear of- here is one report of an ongoing dialogue between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, reported in a major Israeli newspaper:

Reading this, I feel hopeful because I’m imagining that the Jewish and Palestinian families who are living near each other have so much motivation to learn to co exist. Indeed, what is the alternative?

Tomorrow I am going back to Bethlehem with a delegation of 40 Rabbis, rabbinical students and others. In Bethlehem I will room with a Rabbi and we will stay over in a Palestinian household. When I told the women in my class today about this, they were astonished- Rabbis and students coming here? They are curious, excited, thrilled. They immediately expressed concern for the rabbi’s safety!! Make sure they don’t wear their kippot.  I felt so touched at their concern for the rabbi’s wellbeing and safety.

I will report on the Encounter delegation, as its called,  in a few days.

It’s raining again tonight. I decided to stay in, instead of going to the Thich Nhat Hanh sanghas meeting, and write a bit (this!) and finish reading a book I bought at Shakespeare and Company in Paris on my way here- I  want to highly recommend A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s memoir of growing up in Jerusalem after the war. It is magnificent writing and a deep exploration of the Jewish psyche here. Hagit and I want to meet him, to tell him about NVC,  so please let me know if you know how to connect with him.

I will end with a poem by Zelda, Amos Oz’s teacher and his first love, at age 8 Her poems are in the Reconstructionist Siddur we use at Woodstock Jewish Congregation,and I always wondered who she was.

This poem  deeply touches and inspires me- it is about her grandfather, who maintained such a deep well of joy, amidst the fires of the Holocaust.:


Like our father Abraham
who counted stars at night,
who called out to his Creator
from the furnace,
who bound his son
on the altar –
so was my grandfather.
The same perfect faith
in the midst of the flames,
the same dewy gaze
and soft-curling beard.
Outside, it snowed;
outside, they roared:
“There is no justice,
no judge.”

And in the shambles of his room,
cherubs sang

of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
© 1985, Zelda
From: Shirey Zelda

Publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1985

I  haven’t even written here about the deep connection and exploration I have here to Jewish teachings. These are the weeks when we study the Exodus, the Jewish People encountering God at Sinai, the parting of  the Sea, the plagues. When I heard G.  in Bethlehem say, I don’t want my heart to harden, I want to talk, I was astonished at how alive the the teachings of the Torah could be for the peace process. The deep teachings are always that Pharoah is in us, not separate- Moses too, god too, and the Path, the Halacha, is to bring us out of the narrow place where Pharoah rules.

The classes I am taking with Avivah  Zornberg, Sarah Yehudit Schneider and Emuna Witt. Sitting with groups of mostly Orthodox women, bringing our hearts and minds together to examine and learn and support each other to live in a way that brings down the Divine energy.  Digging deeply into the wells of Torah, Zohar, Rabbinical  Jewish teachings, to learn to live with discernment of our needs, but without judgment. With open hearts for all peoples and for earth. I hope to write up some of my class notes and insights soon.