I never ascribed any real faith to Christianity until I took these two photos, strolling through a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem last October.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher loomed around us – the tourists, believers, and I – and Jerusalem gave Christianity the kind of weight I feel with Judaism at the Western Wall.
I won’t pretend to understand the complex layout of the Church. Full of corridors with dim light leading who-knows-where and massive chambers to get lost in, housing relics with names I can’t pronounce.
The politics are pure Jerusalem. Ownership of the site is primarily divided among the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches. But a Muslim family in the city has had the key to the Church since the 12th century, and another Muslim Jerusalem family opens and locks the building every day.
Inside, the faith is much simpler than any explanation. And very strong.
Even in a city full of devout Jews, the intensity of prayer while lighting candles surprised me. And countless people bent down to rub their hands and clothing on the stone where, it is believed, Jesus was anointed before his burial and resurrection.
Though no one (to my knowledge) was anointed on the Western Wall, I understand touching stone.
Is it Jewish arrogance that led me to quietly dismiss Christianity all my life, though I grew up around it in the suburbs of Minneapolis?
But like all Jewish attitudes, it is borne in the seeds of history; over hundreds of years dealing with pogroms, oppression, blood libels, and a constant needling of the Jewish stupidity in not accepting Jesus as our savior.
Knowledge is corrosive.
How else, then, am I supposed to react? Churches spark a fundamental uneasiness in me. Especially in America, with huge posters on the walls in creative fonts, screaming at me with lines from the gospels next to differently sized crucifixes.
Many Jews died on a crucifix, thanks to the Romans. Many more Jews died of weaponized anti-Semitism, thanks to Christianity.
Obviously, I inherited a tribalism more primitive than the interfaith dreams of American freedom. I believe in those dreams. But I’m not so good at breathing life into them.
So better to stay quiet and polite, even as I had high school friends cry because I was going to Hell.
In fact, part of my original distaste for Christianity came from my friends. Seeing them work out deep-seated issues of fear, guilt, and manipulation that were always, somehow, caught up in what they’d learned in church. It scared me.
And I’ve always been deeply angry when Christians try to explain the Old Testament. The feeling of my holy books being stolen and bastardized and snipped into simplicity, while my people lived and breathed with the work to understand them.
I’m not a very observant or traditionally religious person, which adds some irony. But, I am a Jew.
These things are (and I hate using this phrase) politically incorrect and not nice things to say – but they are true.
It’s fitting that it took time in a Jewish-majority country on an ancient land for me to set old attitudes aside.
Maybe the feeling of security in being a Jew in Israel helped. But, enough psychoanalysis.
While visiting the Jordan river, swollen with floodwater before Passover, I saw Christian pilgrims (mostly from Ukraine and Russia) dipping in.
The tour guide read from a pocketbook Torah about the moment that the Israelites crossed over the Jordan river to finally enter the land of Canaan. And I could only watch as people stood, as still as can be, before slowly crossing themselves and lowering into the water.
Baptism. Like Jesus.
Again that strong faith, beyond what I’d seen even of pious observant Jews. It feels further away to me, more inaccessible than the gritty rituals of Judaism that one can do without the slightest belief in God.
But more real than I remember it being in America. The unavoidable effect of the holy land.
Still, a contradiction nagged me. I appreciated Christianity as I hadn’t before. But about these Russian and Ukrainian pilgrims, I wondered…how many of their ancestors had spit on Jews before they came here? How many blood libels?
I couldn’t and didn’t dismiss the feeling. But I watched, settled into the view of a group that walked down stairs to the river and stood while a minister (I would assume) poured the holy water on their heads.
“Poured holy water on their heads,” maybe not quite so. They were anointed.
Afterwards a Jewish woman, a convert who was born a Polish Christian, stepped into the water. The Jordan also qualifies as a Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.
So everyone dipped into the river.
In the Spring, I made my way back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
I wanted a place to work on low-light photography, and to see Christian holiness again. The Church is good for both.
I watched priests change the oil in lamps on a building said to cover the place where Jesus was buried and resurrected from.
And then, tired from the crowds, I snapped this photo, one of the last before I headed home. An Ethiopian Christian praying at the walls of that very same building; praying to the death and life of Jesus.
Not my savior. Not my religion. But still a holy faith.