Tisha B'Av. Jerusalem. 5769.
When I was hear as a rabbinic student in 1989, I met a young Palestinian kid from an East Jerusalem neighborhood who was a kind of pied piper for other Palestinian youth to get involved in peace and dialogue projects. As a result, he met several Americans, wound up in the U.S. for high school and college and graduate school and is now back in Jerusalem, working as a social worker for the prison system and kids at risk. He's one of the most warm-hearted and generous human beings I've ever met in my life and as a religious person, I find him so humbling. I offer my prayers and study of text and teaching; he, not much interested in faith, is keeping kids off the street, helping criminals rehabilitate their lives, and all the while dreaming of a better life for himself and his family.
We met today, on Tisha B'Av, which seemed appropriate. Last night at the Tayelet to hear Lamentations, an early rise for services and more prayer, but since I actually don't fast on this day, I figured it was a chance to catch a quick meal with him--we haven't seen each other in a long time. He was quick to invite me to his favorite hummus restaurant in East Jerusalem off Saladin Street, in the midst of a busy and friendly section of the city that, sadly, is virtually off limits to most Israelis. As we walked the streets, having met at Damascus Gate, people said hello, his cell phone rang incessantly (one prisoner has been transferred from prison to prison for fighting with everyone in each place and my friend said, "Well, as I told his father, 'I can't help your son until he decides to help himself!'")and a side of Jerusalem I rarely visit was waking up, not unlike the side of Jerusalem I came from.
Here there was talk of a pedestrian mall; there, across the way, talk of an apartment complex that would become a modern shopping center. In the window of one bookstore was Walter Lacquer's "History of Zionism." We talked about Sheikh Jarra, Ras al Amud, A-Tur, neighborhoods much in the news for American Jewish right-wing investment as the last acts of attempted hegemony over all of Jerusalem. My friend laughed in frustrated disbelief that this was necessary at all.
The hummus was delicious. The pita fresh. I wasn't ambivalent about eating on Tisha B'Av and somehow felt that breaking bread with a friend on the other side of the city we both love and claim as home was restorative to a torn history among us. He invited me for coffee in his office after, overlooking the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus, and Wadi al Joz, speaking about the archaeological sifting project we took part in earlier in the summer, shedding light on material from the Second Temple period that had been removed to garbage heaps by the Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount in order to attempt to erase any history of Jewish presence in ancient Jerusalem. More frustrated laughter. "Why are we erasing history exactly?" he asked. "The stories we tell of our past give us our life!"
Over coffee I met the other social workers--Jerusalem municipality civil servants, over-worked and underpaid like all civil servants. And I compiled a list of organizations to help and support. Battered women's shelters; at-risk kids; AIDS education. The list goes on and on in both sides of Jerusalem. The needs are great everywhere. Past lamentations mingling in the hot sun with present day cries of pain for a better life. "I have to fill out paperwork soon, Andy, to report on my clients' progress, but let me first tell you about my house."
Far from Jerusalem, a drive into the West Bank, my friend has built a weekend home, after saving for years to buy a piece of land. "I am learning to plant," he said. And went on to describe, with his paperwork calling, the three kinds of lemon trees, three kinds of orange trees, mango, melon, mint and parsley that grows now, in the desert, with the drip irrigation he installed. We made plans for me to bring Rachel and the girls next summer.
"You can stand on the roof and scream whatever you want and no one will hear you," he said, laughing.
What do you scream? I asked.
"Oh, that's easy," he said, eyes smiling. "I love my life."