AS I boarded my plane for the flight from Rome to Jerusalem last July, I noticed the unfamiliar faces of passengers--they were coming from different nations and using a number of different languages to voice their anticipation of landing in Jerusalem. Being a Filipino, I realized that for my stay in Jerusalem I was going to be one of those unfamiliar faces with a strange language.
I'm a student at the Jesuits' Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) in Rome, and I was headed to Jerusalem to take courses at PBI's campus in Jerusalem and at Hebrew University. I was going a bit early to take an optional course in modern Hebrew. A very popular phrase we learned in class, a popular phrase all over Jerusalem, is mikol ha-olam, "from all over the world." Isaiah had prophesied this many years ago: "Many peoples shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord' " (Is 2:3).
"We are people of the Book," says Prof. Ezri Uval in a fitting setting, the library of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. By "we" he means Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A teacher at Hebrew Union College and Hebrew University, he also teaches Hebrew language and culture to Biblicum students.
A fifteenth-century rabbi wrote: "All the winds in the world come and blow in Jerusalem," and the students in our class bore that out. Most were young Jewish students born and raised abroad who were making their aliyah, a "return" to Jerusalem to settle. The first day of class I was surprised to see some of my fellow students kissing something on the doorpost of the classroom as they walked in. Merav El Harrar, a Moroccan who is Jewish, explained to me something about the mezuza, a ritual parchment containing verses from Deuteronomy and set near doorways as a reminder to Jews of their religion. She told me to read Dt 11:20--my first lesson in Judaism!
One time, the theme of our conversation in class was Hebron. Even with our limited knowledge of modern Hebrew we had a heated discussion: some students favored giving up Hebron to the Palestinians for the sake of peace; others wanted Hebron kept because of the tomb of the patriarchs and the Jews living there. I've learned that in Israel, one cannot remain a passive bystander to what is happening.
There was only one other Christian besides myself in our class, both of us Catholic priests and Biblicum students. Fr. Jean-Juste is a Redemptorist from Haiti. His first name is Adonai, but since this word, usually rendered in English as "Lord," is a holy name for the Jews, we call him by his family name. The two of us created a mild stir when our teacher learned that we were priests: "This is the first time I've had Christian priests in my class." Overhearing this, Danna, a classmate from France, innocently asked me, "Where is your cross?" In my limited Hebrew I explained to her that not every Notsri (Hebrew for both "Christian" and one who comes from Nazareth) carries a crucifix.
But her question made me ask myself, Where indeed is my cross? I remember one time inviting Liu Fei, a Chinese student, to mass at the Jesuit house where I was staying. She was from Beijing and studying modern Hebrew and English at Hebrew University. She said that she never attended any Christian worship before as she does not belong to any religion. Above the simple altar in our small chapel is a life-size painting of Jesus crucified. She asked me in Hebrew, Mu ze? "What's that?" I told her the story of the passion and death of Jesus. It made me realize that for some of us Christians the cross sometimes does not shock or interest us anymore.
In mid September the rest of the PBI students arrived, nineteen priests, two nuns, and a deacon. They came from thirteen nations, speaking seventeen languages. Before our fall courses started, we took some time to visit different Christian sites. Our guide was Fr. Juan Manuel Martin-Moreno, a Jesuit from Spain whose modern Hebrew is impressive. He brought us to Galilee. The desert was brown and dry, yet around the lake it was green and teeming with life. There, Fr. Martin-Moreno gave us a chance to renew our commitment to our various ministries: the Sea of Galilee refreshed us and brought us life. We sat down near the sea, listening to Gospel passages that told of Jesus' life and his words and works that happened around the Sea of Galilee, including after the Resurrection, when he told the women: "Go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there" (Mt 28:10).
After a week in Galilee, we went back to Jerusalem for the start of the semester at Hebrew University. I was taking biblical Hebrew and biblical archaeology, and I went to classes every day except Saturdays, the Sabbath.
Learning biblical Hebrew is an overwhelming experience. It's a difficult language. But we were much motivated by what we heard and saw all around. For instance, it is a sight to see someone praying the Psalms in Hebrew on the bus. We'd also pray and sing in Hebrew during mass on Fridays, at which Fr. Martin-Moreno normally presided.
Studying biblical archaeology was a new experience for us. Occasionally, our professor took us to museums and archaeological sites, especially those dealing with biblical places and figures. We'd find ourselves actually standing on those places we had known only through the Bible. They became places that we'd never take for granted again.
We also took a course on Judaism in general. The teacher, Mr. Ezri Uval, has been teaching PBI students for more than twenty years. He is a very lively and enthusiastic teacher who'd start class with three or four Hebrew songs taken from the Psalms.
"What is common among Jews, Christians, and Muslims," he'd say, "is that we are people of the Book." His friendship wasn't limited to the confines of the classroom; he hosted all of us once at his house, where we wore the kippah, a head covering worn during the havdalla, the blessing of the wine for the end of the Sabbath.
I do like the Sabbath. Before sundown on Friday, Jewish women crowd in the market to buy food for the Sabbath meal. Fr. John Crocker, Jesuit superior at the PBI House, once remarked that the Blessed Mother could have also prepared such a meal for the Holy Family. The start of the Sabbath is signaled by a long siren, but on one street, Mea Shearim, they blow the shofar, or ram's horn. The Jewish side of Jerusalem comes to a stop. Some of us students go to the Old City, ten minutes' walk from the PBI House, to see the Wailing Wall, where Jews gather to pray. The end of the Sabbath is also the beginning of our Sunday liturgy. At 7:00 in the evening, we celebrate Sunday liturgy with some of our friends, classmates, pilgrims, and visitors. The mass is normally presided at by either Fr. Crocker or Fr. Scott Lewis, another Jesuit from the States, who teaches New Testament Greek. During the weekdays, we take turns presiding at the daily Eucharist. Br. Aloysio Persch, a Jesuit from Brazil who helps with housekeeping, regales us during meals with stories about his missionary years in Nepal. Another Jesuit brother, Bruno D'Souza, from Bombay, is the treasurer of the house. He has such a good voice that oftentimes I accompany him on guitar as he leads the singing of songs by the St. Louis Jesuits. Our favorite song is "One Bread, One Body," by Fr. John Foley, SJ. One of his lines seems most apt for our setting: "Gentile or Jew, woman or man, no more" (1 Cor 12:12).
My last days in Jerusalem were also the last days of the Muslim Ramadan. The day before I left for Rome, right at noon, I walked to the Old City to watch more than 60,000 Muslims pray. The call for prayer coming from the mosques was in the air. In the narrow alleys, where the Arab shops are lined up, tourists stopped to haggle for souvenirs. Some Jews in their black robes were walking briskly in the direction of the wall. Three Greek Orthodox priests were coming in from Jaffa Gate. They were unfamiliar faces with unfamiliar languages--just like me when I landed in Jerusalem. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia at the prospect of leaving a holy place saturated with prayers, strange tongues, and faces: Jerusalem, mikol ha-olam. I asked myself, What is it in Jerusalem that made even the psalmist swear to let his "right hand wither" and his "tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth" should he ever forget Jerusalem (Ps 137:5,6)? As I was leaving, the twilight moon was turning the Old City of Jerusalem into gold.
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