Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shavuot on the Mountain of Moses

When I decided to come to Syria for a month this summer, one of the toughest parts of the decision was accepting that I would necessarily be sacrificing the chance to observe many Jewish rituals. My tfellin were left behind for fear that their discovery in Syria would prove dangerous. And although I did bring a small siddur (Jewish prayerbook) with me, I knew in advance that whatever experience I had developed in observing shabbat on my own in atheist China would be put to the test in not quite atheist Syria. My first shabbat in Syria came wrapped in an even bigger challenge because the Jewish holiday of Shavout began on Thursday night, meaning that the spiritual opportunities and mundane restrictions required on shabbat would start one day earlier. How could I properly observe one of the key holidays on the Jewish calendar in a Muslim police state, especially as I had only arrived in the country three days before and barely knew how to find my way to the closest ATM, let alone whom I could trust with my religious needs.

I knew I had to leave Damascus. And if there was one place in all of Syria that spoke the language of the holiday commemorating the reception of the Torah by Moshe and the Jewish people in the wilderness, I had no doubt it was the ancient Monastery of Mar Musa. The monastery is perched on a desert cliff face 100 km from the urban bustle of Damascus. The closest town is nearly twenty km away, though visitors to the monastery are welcome to stay for free in any one of several dwellings that look out over the wilderness of northeastern Syria.

The setting alone may have been enough to draw me to the monastery. But it was the history and contemporary mission that sealed my decision to spend my holiday weekend in what after all is a Christian enclave. Mar Musa is named after its legendary founder, a traveling Ethiopian priest named Moses whom is said to have been the rightful heir to the Abyssinian throne of Solomon. Moses established the monastery in the sixth century, five hundred years later a church was added and only in the early years of the nineteenth century was the site abandoned. In the 1980s, an Italian former Jesuit named Father Paolo reestablished the monastery. With the support of foreign monies, the ingenious father and his small crew of coed acolytes have created a wonder along the rock face (complete with modernish electricity and plumbing!). The purpose behind the reborn monastery is simple: to create a hospice for spiritual searchers and to promote a message of spiritual faith and tolerance.

The mission of the monastery was tested shortly after I arrived at Mar Musa on Thursday May 28. Over a modest vegetarian dinner, one of the six resident monks asked me why I had forgone consuming the bread and wine that had been served during the evening mass. Earlier in the day I had gingerly decided to sit in and observe the Christian prayer service held in the eleventh century chapel that lies at the heart of the monastery. The soulful Arabic prayers sung by the worshippers redeemed my hesitancy to attend, though it was frightfully awkward when Father Paolo looked around in confusion after one slice of pita and sip of wine were returned to him untouched by yours truly.

So when the priest asked, I replied without hesitation that I was not Christian and so was not prepared to take an active role in the service. If I was not Christian, was I perchance...? No, I replied, I am Jewish. Silence. You know, Jude. Juden, Yehuda? More silence.

Just as the meal seemed likely to grind to a complete halt, a visiting Syrian Christian girl to my right perked up and cautiously inquired whether I could marry Jesus. Marry Jesus? At first I was sure she was confused at how Jewish belief differed from her own. But when my attempts at some basic clarification went nowhere, I realized what she was really asking with her limited English. So I explained that barring unusual circumstances, Judaism strongly discourages intermarriage with Christians (Jesus having been the best translation the Syrian girl could come up with for Christians). A few folks laughed, a volunteer came at me with some more questions and the tension passed. Only after the meal did one monk tell me on the side that he was so glad I had come to visit the monastery. But he urged me to be very cautious in letting word of my religious faith slip in the rest of the country. As he put it "American? Challas (enough/too much)! American and Jew? Double Challas!"

Mar Musa is a wonderful place for weighty conversations. And over my three day stay, there were plenty. A young Syrian girl long since distanced from her Muslim roots was full of questions about what stereotypes Jews in American have about Arabs and Muslims. An Italian guy of mixed Jewish ancestry was fascinated by my explanation of the theological divide between intent and deed in Judaism and Christianity. A Christian Syrian-American and I exchanged very different opinions about the merits of considering Bin Laden a fair representative of Islam. And most memorably, a young Frenchman who lives at the monastery as a long term volunteer was full of questions about Jewish mysticism and prayer. But what he really wanted to know was what went into a Jewish shabbat meal to make them so special. As I tried to convey to him the magical energy woven through song and Torah discussion by the shabbat table of, say, Rav Machlis in Jerusalem, I could only smile as my mind replayed Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's words to the Roman emperor when the latter asked what spice was missing from his luxurious spreads that the Rabbi included at his Friday night dinner. The spice is Shabbat, the sage explained, and in all your treasure houses, oh emperor, where can you find Shabbat?

The monastery also gave me a chance to dwell on questions of my own. In this I was hardly alone. Another visitor was visiting Mar Musa in order to understand what had recently driven his older brother to embark on a solitary hike that began in Paris and wove through a few dozen countries--including Syria--before concluding at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I sought my own questions through prayer, bits of meditation and old and new biblical favorites like Ruth, Psalms, Song of Songs and--hear me out on this-- the book of Matthew from the New Testament. I fell into reading the New Testament when I spied a Chinese/English copy of the Bible and began flipping through to see how the biblical cadence was captured in Chinese. My language talents gave out before my patience and so when I turned a page and saw the words of Matthew, I settled down for the first time to see what the New Testament had to say for itself. I was fascinated to see that Matthew is the origin for so many of the greatest lines of Lincoln and other great orators; surprised at how polemical the text actually is; and pretty confused at some of JC's line. My favorite may be what he says in response to his disciples when they are upset at seeing a lady pour perfume on their leader. Not quite what I expected, though it captured the mix of spiritual and intellectual questioning that marked my Shavout stay at Mar Musa.

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