“Why are you going to Israel?” a young 20-something Israeli airline officer asked me. His tone was commanding, yet he was slight with a childish face.
I answered his question: “As a tourist.”
“A tourist?! To see what?! Why are you going to Israel? Who told you this is a tourist place?” Feral eyes stared back at me.
“I think it’s a quite famous tourist place, actually,” I said.
“Really? Who told you this?” he continued.
“There are lots of historical and religious sites there.”
“Really? Who told you this?” my interrogator responded.
“Some friends who have been there before.”
“Really? What is the name of one such friend?” he asked.
I thought about saying, “Jesus” but thought better of it.
“Aset,” I replied.
“And what is the address of this Aset?” he asked.
We went on like this for a while until we reached the inevitable crossroads at which I had to reveal my ICD device. Within a few minutes, I found myself in a basement interrogation room with a female member of the Spanish army and some Israeli airline managers. I was in the Madrid-Barajas Airport, having stopped there on my way from Washington, D.C. to Tel Aviv. My guardians asked me to remove my clothes as they scrolled through the photographs on my cell phone. Then, just as I was wondering if this trip was really meant to be, I got cleared for release!
On the plane, I was seated next to the most handsome man with black wavy hair and cerulean blue eyes, an Israeli movie star named Udi Persi. He told me that his latest film took place in an interrogation room, and suddenly my view of my recent security experience became much rosier. Then things really started to get weird.
Midway through the flight, a blonde woman with feathered hair (the look was Debbie Harry left CBGB and started an organic co-op) reached up into the overhead storage container. She pulled down her accordion and began to perform Hebrew songs in the aisle. This would have made less sense—although not that much less—were she not part of a group of 20 people wearing bright shirts that read “SING ISRAEL.” Her group joined her, and soon the entire plane was clapping and singing. Udi, who was reluctant to take part in the jamboree, noted that those visiting Israel are often more passionate about it than those living there. Then he asked me if I was Jewish.
I remembered a conversation I once had with a friend from business school named Francisco who was a native of Madrid, Spain. He told me a story about Sephardic Jews in Spain who were purged forcibly from the kingdom starting in 1492. Back then Spain was ruled by Catholic monarchs who had issued an edict.
“It was convert, leave, or die!” Francisco declared with exuberance.
Many Sephardic Jews spread to nearby countries or to Spanish colonies. The Philippines was one such place. When Francisco asked me for some old family names from my Filipino lineage, he recognized Meneses, the maiden name of my grandmother, to be Sephardic in origin.
I saw Udi’s last comment as a perfect opportunity to mention my newfound status. He responded by asking me a few questions about Judaism and my lineage.
“Is your mother a practicing Jew?” he wanted to know.
“Did you have a bat mitzvah?”
“Do you know Hebrew?”
“Well, not yet.”
“The circle is closed,” he said, waving his hand in the air for dramatic effect. “You are not a Jew!”
Two thousand years ago, the land that is now called Israel was known as Palestine. At the time of Jesus’s birth, it had been forcibly occupied by the Roman Empire for about 100 years. Jerusalem was one of the region’s big cities, and to its north was a more rural and rugged area known as Galilee. That is where I was headed.
In his book Zealot, religious scholar Reza Aslan describes the social and economic climate of the times. The occupation of Palestine was brutal. Rome deployed tax collectors to extract heavy taxes from peasants and farmers to support the Romans in their ever-growing cities. The Roman governors and their Jewish upper-class colluders would feast in luxury in grand buildings and estates, all supported by the toil of the heavily-taxed average people. Even back then, this was a society of haves and have-nots.
The pervasive injustice bred rebellion. Rebels were dealt with brutally, often sentenced to death. The Romans were known to burn entire towns to ashes for any uprisings. Crucifixion and death by stoning were common. It was into this fraught, violent, and unfair world that Jesus was born.
We know that he spent his childhood in the small town of Nazareth but in the Bible, his life between his 13th and his latter adult years are unchronicled. In the Bible, Jesus first reappears as an adult in Galilee, already a teacher and fully fledged miracle worker. The gap is often referred to as “the missing years of Jesus.” It is one of the greatest canonical mysteries—where was Jesus during this time?
One theory is that he lived in India. Nicolas Notovitch, a Russian medical doctor who published a hit book in 1894 called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. It details a possible account of Jesus’s time in India. While on an expedition through Tibet and India, Notovitch broke his leg in Ladakh (one of the northernmost regions of India) and spent months recovering in an ancient Buddhist lamasery called Hemis. Lamas are a classification of monk, the highest, most intellectual teachers, and Hemis was a university of sorts. During his convalescence, Notovitch studied the ancient scriptures in the library and became interested in an old Tibetan scroll titled The Life of Saint Issa.
The text describes a significant incarnation, the birth of an important divine child in Israel. The child was called Issa, which is the name for Jesus in the Koran and means “the lord” in Sanskrit. At the age of 13, Issa joined a caravan of traders to travel to India, where he stayed for some time and studied with spiritual masters. The scroll says that he was taught by the white brahmas (priests) “to cure by aid of prayer, to teach, to explain the Holy Scriptures to the people, and to drive out evil spirits from the bodies of men, restoring unto them their sanity.”
Issa learned from Jain and Buddhist masters and read the Vedas. He began teaching the scriptures to the lower castes, which angered the priests who wished for the teachings to remain exclusive to the educated classes. The priests then plotted to assassinate Issa, but he was warned of the plot and subsequently fled to southern Nepal. He eventually returned to his home Jerusalem.
After returning to Europe, Notovitch shared his discovery in his book. Far from being decried as a hoax, it was a well-received European bestseller.
So did Jesus live in India? Was that where he learned mystical healing? Although we will likely never know for sure, some scholars reject the idea. It certainly would not have been an easy trip back then. I’m quite sure that if Jesus were alive today, however, he would rather enjoy India!!
But now I had come to a place where Jesus was known to have been. Within the region of Galilee, I had decided to base myself in the ancient hilltop city of Safed (or Tsefat). It is not only one of the region’s most charming and practical places, but also known as an important place for Jewish mysticism. When I was researching my itinerary, quite a few friends had recommended staying there and making a “must see” trip to nearby Mount Meron.
I parked my car at my hillside hotel next to some ancient buildings and entered the hotel lobby in my mint green pastel shorts and brightly printed tunic, with unkempt hair. Greeting me were gasps and stares from conservatively dressed Hasidic Jews. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just rolled my suitcase into the Jewish religious holiday of Sukkot.
In Judaism, every new year is marked by a period of reflection that lasts nearly a month. It begins with Rosh Hashanah—a day of judgment in which one reflects on one’s actions and thoughts. Rosh Hashanah is followed by Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. Having reflected on your own actions, you can now forgive yourself for any wayward ones, and forgive your friends as well. The process reminds one of the all-encompassing forgiveness of God, a quality that eludes us humans from time to time. Finally, as I was about to discover, the new year gets brighter with Sukkot, a holiday marking the end of the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years.
The Israelites had been oppressed, living as slaves in Egypt. Their leader Moses liberated them, leading them from Egypt and into the desert. They lived there for 40 years under harsh circumstances. Only the true believers could persevere. Finally, they were delivered to the promised land (now Israel).
I felt like I could relate. Everything that I had been through had been building me, and now, I too, was finally in the promised land. It felt apt that I had come during Sukkot. Celebrants traditionally erect a tent, often made from palm fronds, to eat in and sleep in. Sukkot falls on what is often the rainiest, windiest time of the year in Israel, which I assume lends to more authenticity as well as suffering.
Many religious Jews are drawn to Safed on the holiday to spend time in the special synagogues and tombs in the area. There would be very few (possibly only one, myself) history buffs, Kabbalists, or Christian tourists in the town that weekend. As I was checking in, a teenage boy rocked back and forth over a Torah in his hands. In the lobby, a family lit tea candles surrounded by salt and glasses of wine.
Mount Meron is the site of the tombs of rabbis known as the authors of the Zohar, which is a foundational work of Kabbalah. This Jewish ancient school of mystic wisdom originated in these lands. While Meron didn’t have anything to do with Jesus directly, this location seemed to be involved with so many strands of spirituality through the years that I knew it was a place I had to experience.
My friend Dr. Gerald Epstein was one person who suggested that I visit Meron, and he had told me that I should lie on the graves of the rabbis.
“Don’t mind anybody,” he said. “If they look at you funny, just do it anyway. Lie there for a minute or two and absorb their energy.”
When I told the hotel manager that I was planning on visiting Meron, he laughed out loud.
“That place is for religious nut jobs who go there to pray for marriage!” he said.
Bonus! I thought.
At breakfast the first morning, nobody made eye contact with me. Most women, even the teenage girls, had their hair covered and wore stockings. I was eating with my face in my iPad when a good-looking young couple approached my table.
“Hello,” the woman said. “We noticed that you are eating alone and wondered if you’d like to join us for dinner tonight?”
I remembered what I had learned in India—that those who travel in search of God will never be alone. I agreed to meet them later in the evening and embarked, programming my rental car GPS for my “religious nut job” tour. Before Meron, there was an important stop: Amuka.
The Meron graves are a major pilgrimage site (for religious nut jobs and others), but the specific place to pray for a marriage is the 2,000-year-old grave of a rabbi named Jonathan ben Uzziel in nearby Amuka. Once you visit, it’s said that you will be united with your marriage partner within the year. There are bus tours that depend upon this hope.
Optimistic that Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel had more than 2,000 years of experience in matchmaking, I figured it would be a worthwhile trip. Unfortunately, I realized after I made the 20-minute drive to Amuka that I didn’t quite know where the grave site was and neither did the GPS nor the strangers I asked along the way. The quest ended without success after nearly 40 minutes of driving through the forest alone. It seemed as though the only thing harder than finding your mate for life was locating the resting place of the rabbi who finds him for you.
The main attraction of Mount Meron is a structure built around the tombs of Kabbalah’s founders, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar. After criticizing Roman rule in the 1st century, Rabbi Shimon and Elazar were driven to hide in a cave near Meron. They lived in this cave for a dozen years, surviving only with a carob tree and an underground spring for water.
This deprivation is said to have produced a bounty. Divine beings (including Elijah from the Old Testament) inspired Rabbi Shimon to write the Zohar, sometimes known as the Radiance, in this cave. When the Zohar came into the hands of a sole Sephardic rabbi in Spain roughly 1,100 years later, many believed it was he who wrote it. Mishandled, misunderstood, or just misattributed, the text still illuminates the nature of reality and the path of the soul. It discusses angels and a parallel inner world—all things I had never believed in before my journey. But now they were becoming as real to me as the ground that I walked on.
The tombs of Rabbi Shimon and Elazar are large, nearly ten feet long and six feet high, with the space divided by a wall separating the women’s praying room from the men’s. Birds darted in and out, singing through open doorways at the ends of the room. Bookcases lined the walls. Rabbi Shimon’s tomb had all the single ladies, so I first walked towards Elazar’s tomb, which was draped in a navy blue blanket embroidered with crowns. I placed my hands on the grave. My breathing was deep and slow. I stood there for 20 seconds or so, and I really did feel a magnetic pull from within the tomb.
Then, with my hands still on the tomb, I literally heard a voice. It sang the great prayer given by the Indian prophet Patanjali:
Three aspects of God: Creator, protector, destroyer. That is ecstasy.
I understood. We are living the cycle of creation and destruction constantly. The ecstasy is in the renewal, the re-birth. If all things were to remain the same always, if fantasies or the material never dissolved, we would not have the joy in creating the new. Creation. Protection. Destruction. Ecstasy. This was the truth of the Universe. The truth of God that is within all things. It was the cycle of humans, flowers, forests, and even stars.
As I connected to the energy coming through the tomb, I let myself create. I sent out mental images. More time spent with my friends. A wedding. A child. A home. It made me perplexed to think that as much as I had given to my spiritual journey, my desires hadn’t really changed that much. I had thought that attaining these things would bring me peace. I now knew that peace only comes from within, but I was still reaching for things outside of myself.
The desires might not have changed much but my perspective on them had transformed drastically. Marriage and children were no longer an ambiguous goal sought only to have achieved them or to have an entourage to make me feel secure and loved, but a deeper surrender to my spiritual development and responsibility. It would be to experience an aspect of myself that had never been brought forth before, to lend my strength and support to others and to raise children with open hearts.
Next I walked over to Rabbi Shimon’s tomb. I was surprised to discover the woman I had met at breakfast standing right next to me. But somehow she looked different. At first I wasn’t sure what it was but then it became clear. The woman was pregnant. How I hadn’t noticed this before seemed impossible to me, but it was definitely the same woman.
She was leaning against the tomb, wiping tears from her eyes. And I could hear her praying—barely audibly—for blessings for the soul she was about to bring forth into the world. It was such a pure and beautiful act to witness, a woman on the verge of being a mother praying for the future of her child. It was, I realized at that moment, a holy act.
As I couldn’t bring myself to climb on top and actually lie on the tomb, I stood with my back against it. I’d like to think this was the maximum legal approximation of Dr. Epstein’s recommendation that I lie on the tomb. Not much happened for a few minutes, but then a blistered old crone with sores on her face approached me. She placed her hands on both sides of my body, and forcefully spun me around so that my forehead was resting on the tomb. I felt energy, and I was given visions of myself dying, over and over again. Somehow, it was my old self, or my ego, that was being laid to rest. I was given the realization that my life had the potential to be so much greater than I ever thought it could be.
When I was through, my new pregnant friend was waiting for me. Her name was Meirav, and she brought me to a back entrance of the synagogue where we bought candles from a young boy. We took them to an outdoor metal shed where there was a makeshift altar. On the shelf, dozens of candles had all melted and blended into each other, forming an amalgamated river of wax and intentions. We lit candles for each prayer request.
One of mine was for her.