Why I Went to Israel, or The Wilderness

Wilderness outside Jerusalem, February 2017
Wilderness outside Jerusalem, February 2017

In February, I went to Israel. I’d been saying I wanted to do this for years, ever since a friend moved there (but subsequently returned to the States), so I’d kind of taken for granted that this was a tremendous thing to do. I figured other people would get it.

So, I wasn’t expecting friends to ask, sometimes a bit incredulously, why I had gone. This even happened with some friends I know to be wander-lusty travel enthusiasts, or to have been so in the past. I guess it’s because of the perceived Christiness of a trip to Israel, the though that you’ve got to be something of a religious nut to go there. I don’t think it’s about the perceived danger, either, as it’s now been a few years since the suicide bombs were in the news.

I’m not a religious person. That is to say, I’m not a believer. Never have been. I’m too skeptical, too turned off by the anti-science nonsense that tends to go along with believing — and, perhaps most importantly, I was not raised with it. My family never went to church. (It would have been difficult to pick one, between my mom’s Catholic upbringing and my dad’s Hindu family. Anyway, neither of them was religious in adulthood.)

So, I didn’t go to Israel to “connect with my faith,” technically speaking, nor am I Jewish, so I didn’t have that reason for visiting. But the trip was indeed making a connection, or re-connection. You can’t grow up in the Western cultural tradition without absorbing something about the enormous resonance of a place called Jerusalem.

When I went to Ireland and England on literature-related programs in college, people didn’t ask why. The reasons were clear. For one thing, these are just places you go on trips, places many people go.  And as a reader/writer — well, duh. You go to the places Dickens wrote about. You go to the place where Shakespeare staged his plays. It makes sense.

Moreover, for an American, it is a reconnection, and a hugely resonant one. Here is where so many of our stories, and so much of our history comes from: our fairy tales. Our legends of knights in armor. And our Shakespeare. I remember the thrilling feeling, when I went to the British Isles, of being in the place — the actual place! — the green fields and the winding city streets, that had always been a site of imagination before.

Traveling to Israel was that same feeling — but even deeper. Here are the places — the actual places! — where the stories of the Bible take place. Now, you may consider these stories just as or nearly as fictional as those told by Dickens and Shakespeare. And you’d have some reason for that. But the difference is that the people who told them believed them, and the people who read them, for centuries, believed them.

Here is the place where people heard the voice of God.

Say what you will about the scientific reasons for this — did Paul suffer an aneurysm on the road to Damascus? — when you come to Israel, you’re walking the landscapes that spoke to people in that voice, and what they heard remains a foundational component of our culture, preserved in a certain best-selling book and in liturgies passed down through the ages. It’s an amazing thing.

Travel can involve a certain amount of pressure and anxiety. You’re supposed to experience something, feel a certain way, take the right thing away from what you’re seeing or doing. You go to the Grand Canyon, and you wonder if you’re sufficiently awed. How much time should you spend looking? Are you really present? How do you ensure that you are?

Such a reckoning with the Grand Canyon is relevant to what I’m saying here because my most resonant experience in Israel happened in this sort of place — in the natural sublime, you might say.

Toward the end of my trip, I took a day tour into the Palestinian territory. Initially, this was an effort to at least do something to acknowledge and learn about the experience of Palestinians under occupation, as a friend who’d gone there on Birthright suggested. (This is, perhaps, the topic for another post.) But the experience I most remember from that tour came not at the wall in Palestinian territory, not at the birthplace of Jesus at the church in Bethlehem, not at the site in the River Jordan of Jesus’ supposed baptism — but while traveling between cities in the hills outside Jerusalem.

Our bus stopped at a high point along the winding highway we were following, and the guide let us out to take a look around. Here, he said, was “the wilderness” described in the Bible. It was a broad expanse of sandy hills, stretching all into the distance. They’re of a height, really, somewhere between hills and mountains. It’s desert landscape, with the desert’s beauty. In the distance, you can spy Jerusalem. It’s the sort of natural beauty that you might observe for a few moments, and take some pictures to post, which I did.

But I knew there was more than that. Here was that travel anxiety: How much time should I spend with this natural beauty? What am I supposed to feel here? So I took a moment to reflect. Here, I thought, standing apart from the tour group as everyone else filed back onto the bus, was where the prophets, where Jesus — or those like him at the time — looked across the landscape and heard the voice at the heart of our culture. And you look over that landscape, you can feel it: These mountains look the way the voice of God must sound.

You don’t have to be a believer to experience this. This “voice of God” is culturally shaped. I experienced this because I’ve been raised in the Western tradition. I’ve read, or perhaps experienced via cultural osmosis, the stories of Jesus in the wilderness. I’ve been trained, at some level, to hear the wilderness of Jerusalem speak like this. Were I raised in the Native American tradition, for example, maybe I’d feel the same thing in the New Mexico desert.

But, for those raised around cathedrals and churches, this is the place. It is the actual place. It is not a piece of nature that resembles the  sites of these ancient stories.

This is where that man walked, where people like him walked.

I did a thing, then, I’d never done before. I waited to make sure the tour guide wasn’t watching (just in case), and I picked up a rock, a small piece of the land. I found a pocket in my backpack for it. It’s on a shelf in my apartment now.

It’s a cheesy thing to do, I know, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It still doesn’t, really.

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