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Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, 480 pp.

Children of the StoneI was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the Stone. While it was a good story, it was a less compelling read than I had hoped, and I found it somewhat disappointing.

The center of the story is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, one of the young Palestinian boys whose picture was made famous for throwing stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada. Ramzi grows up to become a musician, and to found a music school for children in Gaza, the most improbably location. Children of the Stone tells the story of his growing up in Gaza, the (gross) violence he witnessed and the (minor) violence he engaged. It unfolds the incredible effort of his musical training, entering the realm of music at a much later age than many of his peers, and the way music freed him from Gaza and opened up the world for him. It shares his passion to open up that world for other Palestinian children through his music school.

Where the book disappoints is in the story of the building of the music school. Tolan tries to weave together Ramzi’s story with the stories of Palestinian academic Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ramzi did come to play in the Divan orchestra founded by Said and Barenboim, but the connection between them did not seem worthy of the ink Tolan devoted to it. The Divan Orchestra was a greater source of frustration than inspiration for Ramzi. The many pages devoted to Said and Barenboim did not seem to advance the story, and Ramzi never even met Said. The same is true of the time Tolan spends developing the life portraits of several volunteers (mostly European) who travel to Palestine to help teach in the school.

Ramzi is somehow able to raise money for the school, convince musicians and volunteers to travel to Palestine to teach and play, continue touring Europe as a musician, oversee every detail of construction, handle publicity and politics, and gently encourage students that music is worthwhile. In order to do that, he must be an incredible force of passion and charisma, with an energy and magnetism that radiates. However, Tolan’s portrait does not capture and captivate us with that force. Like the journalist that he is, Tolan’s Children of the Stone reads too much like a laundry list of events and not enough like the captivating story of Ramzi’s amazing life. Ramzi feels diminished by the telling, which simply recounts “this happened, then this happened, and this witness said this, and this witness said that…” It’s too much like a newspaper account of an event, and not enough like an author crafting a narrative. Those who speak to Ramzi’s temperament and dedication come across as witnesses giving a deposition rather than those inspired (or angered) by Ramzi’s passion. At one point, about midway through, I almost put it down for good, bored by the side narratives and dry recounting.

The book is at its best when it is recounting the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and telling the story of Ramzi’s family. With Ramzi’s life as the uniting thread, Tolan is able to open an important window into the untold stories of life in Palestine. His approach is less careful to justify the actions of the Israeli government than in The Lemon Tree, which I appreciate as a brave and important act of truth-telling. For that reason, I want to support this book, to have people read it and come to know the important story that it tells about Ramzi, his family and the people of Palestine. I only wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm for the storytelling.

By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.

Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.

After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.

Noora Qertt sharing her inspiring stories.

Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.

One of the sample hearths in the small museum

The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.

View from the roof of the Wujoud building, looking down at the street.

That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.

Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.

I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?

Sitting and listening to Noora was like being in church, and I felt the Spirit in our midst.

Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.

Most of our Macedonian Ministries group at the Louisville airport.

We have arrived! We travelled from Louisville to Newark, then from Newark to Tel Aviv. At the airport in Tel Aviv, our tour bus picked us up for a two-hour bus ride to the Sea of Galilee. From home to hotel, my travel time was exactly 25 hours, and we crossed seven time zones. We are staying at the Pilgerhaus, which is on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, just yards from the shore and north of the city of Tiberias. We arrived after dark, so I have not yet seen the view.

Apartment buildings on hillside. These kind of apartment buildings are everywhere, especially in cities and Jewish territories. They were built to house all the immigrants arriving to Israel from around the world.

Traveling, for me, is both terrible and terrific. Airplane seats are tiny and cramped, the food was awful, and I slept less than an hour on the 11-hour overnight flight. My body is stiff, sore and exhausted. And yet, I watched three movies in a row, read books galore, and had lots of time to simply sit back and think and pray myself into pilgrimage. Hours in transit offer a liminality that helps disconnect me from ordinary life at home and enter into a different mode of being. In airports and airplanes, you are in a time out of time, no longer certain of the date or even whether it is day or night—yet somehow, when you arrive, after a good night’s sleep you are refreshed and ready to begin anew.

Preparing my heart for pilgrimage made me appreciate the sight of a beautiful rainbow as a true gift from God.

Speaking of books, any of you who know me (or have ever surfed this blog) will know that books are very important to me. This is especially true when I travel. Here are the books I am traveling with:

Two books about pilgrimage, to set me right for this special journey:

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau

Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George

Two books about the life of Jesus, to put me in touch with the places we’ll visit:

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan

Two books for fun on the plane:

Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans

Rudy, by Ann Hood

I also have my Bible, a notebook, and a travel guide prepared by the Macedonian Ministries Program, unique to this trip and the sites we will explore.

On the plane, I read the first several chapters of both books about pilgrimage. Both spoke to me deeply about the sacred longing that pulls us into a pilgrimage. They also reminded me of the hardships and struggles of earlier generations of pilgrims of all faiths, who traveled on foot for years, faced disease and starvation, and death along the way. Twenty-five hours on a plane is a small price to pay, and physical discomfort is part of the process.

View of the Jezreel Valley, looking south toward Jenin

On the ride from the airport to our hotel, I began to get a sense of the land for the first time. It is the rainy season, so everything is green and lush for a short while. However, the hillsides are thick with stones, craggy boulders that made the land ill-suited for house or farm. One of my colleagues commented, “It sure doesn’t look like the land of milk and honey.”

View of the Jezreel Valley toward the north. This actually does look a bit more like the land of milk and honey, but the surrounding hillsides do not.

It was raining for part of our journey, and I watched the muddy water running off the hills without soaking the soil, channeled instead into gulleys and pathways. I imagined it rushing away to a safe location, where it would wait and return to the land again through the irrigation system that will make food for the people all year. Water makes life in the desert. Living water.

Can you find the guy on horseback in the parking lot?

One of the things that surprised me was the abundance of animals I saw on our short journey. Before we had even made it far from the airport, I looked out the window to see a flock of sheep and goats wandering through a green valley. I didn’t see a shepherd in sight, but it was as if every scripture of sheep in the Galilee, from Psalm 23 to Jesus’ parables, had all come to pass before my eyes. I confess: it was such a stereotype that, rather than a sense of awe, it just made me giggle. Besides the sheep, we saw a man riding a horse through a parking lot, and a field full of camels dancing and prancing around, including a baby one that was all white.

Not a great picture, because it was through the bus window, moving fast. But look, frolicking camels! Even a baby all-white one!

Already, the overlapping of the distant, mythical past and the modern, urban life of Israel are ever-present in my experience. I saw sheep and camels, biblical places like Nazareth, Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor, but I also saw the Security Wall closing off the Palestinian territories. I saw Jewish settlements, and kids playing soccer, and families walking to Shabbat services at sunset. We got stuck in traffic due to a six-car pile-up, and watched the ambulances try to get through. We drove along the edge of the West Bank and saw the battling Palestinian and Jewish architecture in local villages. This clash between past and present, the simultaneous presence of mythical places and all-too-real ones will, I expect, continue to shape my understandings and experiences here.

A Palestinian village in the West Bank, with Jewish settlements. Our tour guide Claudia explained that the flat-roofed houses are Palestinian or Arab, because they always plan to expand and add another level for each new generation. The red roofed houses are Jewish, because they build in a more Western style single-family home. You could then see, as we drove along parallel to the West Bank territory, the Palestinian villages with their minarets, and the Jewish homes built right next to them.

The journey has only just begun. The day has been long and arduous, but this is as it should be. Now, to rest.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury, 2006, 364 pp.

Many, many thanks to my friend Caela for recommending this book. It was great preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in just a few short weeks, and the story was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down.

The Lemon Tree is the true story of two individuals, their families and their personal, intertwining history with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over the last century. Bashir Khairi is a Palestinian Muslim who was six years old in 1948, when his family was forced to leave the house his father had built and the land that had been their heritage for centuries. Dalia Eshkenazi is the daughter of two Bulgarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. She and her parents were among the first Jews relocated from Europe to the newly-formed nation of Israel. Dalia was eleven months old when she came to Israel, and she and her parents took up residence in the vacated family home of Bashir Khairi.

The story begins in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, when Bashir has the opportunity to visit his hometown for the first time in 19 years. With his two cousins, he makes his way back to the town of al-Ramla. They ring the bell of Bashir’s family home, and Dalia answers and agrees to let them in. What unfolds, across the next 40 years, is a friendship and compassionate conversation through the ugliness of war and violence. Bashir remains active in the Palestinian resistance, refusing to let go of his just claim to return to his family home. He spends a quarter of his life in prison as a result. Dalia is unrelenting in her commitment to Israel, her claim to the house, and the need for a Jewish homeland. Yet the two develop a personal respect and admiration for each other that survives their differences and gives cause for hope in the terribly painful conflict in this small patch of land.

Sandy Tolan is a journalist who writes their story with an informality that makes it feel like reading a novel, but a depth of historical information that teaches as the story unfolds. He traces each family’s history back several generations, and then unfolds the story of Dalia’s and Bashir’s lives with care and detail. He lays out the history of the land, the violence and insecurity on both sides, failed attempts at peacemaking, and the realities of occupation with a matter-of-fact approach that honors the sincerity and depth of the conflict on both sides. The story creates in the reader a desire for both Dalia and Bashir to have their way, to meet the just demands of both, but that is impossible. The needs of one conflict with the needs of the other, so the path of forward seems unfair and unclear. In his telling of the personal and political history, Tolan honors the just claims of both sides and both perspectives, and does not try to mediate or take sides.

The central symbol of the book is a lemon tree, planted by Bashir’s father in the back yard of their family home. It is a symbol of the future (turned past) that has been taken away from them, of the home that they long for, and of all that one kindhearted citizen can offer—the gift of lemons from the tree, not the tree itself or the ability to return to the home where it sits.

The Lemon Tree is a fascinating, compelling read, and a great way to gain familiarity with the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There is no resolution, but in this book there is always hope.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 577 pp.

This novel is absolutely stunning in its depth, beauty, profound characters, emotional contours, and intricate portrayal of the personal impact of war. It feels almost like a betrayal of its thick interweaving of words and images to even describe it to you. Just read it for yourself. It’s amazing, you won’t regret it.

To the End of the Land centers on Ora, an Israeli mother of two young adult boys. One of the boys, Ofer, is about to complete his military service when he must return to the front. Ora is overcome with panic and runs away to hike in the Galilee. She is estranged from her husband Ilan, so she picks up her old friend Avram along the way. Avram was her best friend and lover as a teenager, but he was tortured as a POW in the Six Day War and returned unable to live and love Ora or life itself. Ilan and Avram were best friends as well, and the three of them shared an intense bond that was broken when Avram’s spirit was broken in the war. Avram has never met their two sons, and refused to know anything about Ilan and Ora’s life after his captivity, even though they remained his friends and caretakers.

Overcome by a mother’s love and magical thinking, Ora believes she must protect her son Ofer by keeping him constantly in her mind. As she and Avram hike outdoors and journey across the terrain of northern Israel, she tells the story of Ofer, of her older son Adam, of her relationship with Ilan, and of her own life since Avram has been absent from it. The novel unpacks this journey across the Galilee, Ora’s tale, Avram’s heart, and the toll the war has taken on their humanity.

In a word, this novel is stunning. The characters and the story captivated me from the very first page. Ora and Avram come to life immediately, and then Ora’s tale gives life to Ilan, Adam and Ofer slowly as the book proceeds. Grossman details the contours of a mother’s love, friendship, passion, loneliness and despair in ways that illuminate and expose the human soul. I found myself wondering how he managed to put words to such deep, intricate emotion.

The land is a profound part of the story. Grossman describes the terrain that Ora and Avram hike in the Galilee with detail and beauty, and a touch of magical realism in the characters they encounter and the dangers they overcome. The ideal of the land of Israel has cost these characters a significant portion of their souls. Always in the background floats the question: how much is too much of a price to pay? In the treatment of the Palestinians, in the disruption of families, in the human lives lost or forever broken, in the souls bruised by acts of violence—the price to maintain Israel as a Jewish state is almost unbearably high. To the End of the Land ponders what ends human beings must go to in order to protect and live in this land.

I have read (and am still reading) many books on the land of Israel, its history and politics. But I know when I journey to the Galilee in a few weeks, Ora and Avram will be foremost in my mind. I will still be remembering and working through the complexities of their story, and the way it explores the dynamics of the land and its people. I will be watching for Ora and Avram to appear around the corner of every Galilean trail.

God’s Land on Loan: Israel, Palestine and the World by W. Eugene March, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 131 pp.

This is another book I am reading as part of the Macedonian Ministries program.

People devote lifetimes to understanding the complex intertwining of present-day living, history, scripture and theology that shape the Holy Land of Israel/Palestine. The conflicts and questions are impossible to unravel and rooted in thousands of years of warfare, conquest, faith, self-understanding, culture and religion. If you don’t know where to begin to sort through it, or if you don’t have a lifetime to devote, W. Eugene March’s book is an introduction that can be read in just a few hours and give a broad-based yet grounded account of the whole picture.

God’s Land on Loan is grounded in the theological perspective evident in the title: that all land belongs to God, and we who “own” it in this world are merely stewards, with responsibilities to work the land for God’s purposes. March begins the story of the land currently called Israel not at the beginning, but in the present. He paints a picture of the people passing through the two main gates to the Old City in Jerusalem, carrying on their daily lives. Then he gives voice to more than a dozen individuals currently residing in Jerusalem, each speaking the truth of their perspective on the centuries-old conflict over the land, and expressing concerns related to their daily lives.

Only after the reader has been saturated with the complicated diversity of contemporary Jerusalem does March venture into the past. Then, in a concise 40 pages, March tells “The Realities of History,” the stories of occupation, displacement and violence over the last 2,000 years. Again, only after this foundation in contemporary life and factual history, March leads the reader into a chapter on the biblical stories related to the land, followed by a chapter on the theological questions surrounding the land. The concluding chapter returns to the theme of the title: how to tend to the earth-keeping responsibilities for this shared space of sacred and political history.

March’s theology and politics seem far more even-handed than most other accounts. He relates to scripture with a scholarly, historical-critical integrity, while honoring the faith and devotional role that the texts and stories play in shaping our lives. For example, he eloquently describes the role the Bible as helping us ask the right questions, rather than providing all the answers:

For people active in faith communities, the issue is not whether to consider the Bible when dealing with the tough questions of life, but how. … The task is not to determine which view is correct, oldest, or most authoritative. Rather, the goal is to listen and reflect upon the events that God’s people have experienced and the reports they have passed along in the hope and with the conviction that God continues to care for and give guidance to those who seek to place God’s agenda foremost in their lives. (66)

March’s chapter on the theological questions about the land is particularly insightful. Piece by piece, yet in succinct form, he deconstructs many of the misconceptions Christians hold, such as the conflation of the nation Israel with the biblical Israel, supercessionism, or understanding chosenness as rights instead of responsibilities. Always, the image of the title comes through: we are keepers of God’s earth, which is only ours to borrow, and whose use is meant to be for God’s purposes alone.

March offers an excellent introduction to the history of Israel/Palestine and the biblical and theological ideas that have played such conflicting roles. It would work well in a church setting, with lay or clergy groups. I commend it to you as readable, accessible, even-handed and faithful.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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