In early March 1986, my Jewish boyfriend and I traveled from Germany to Israel together, as he wanted to show me the country that meant so much to him. For two weeks, we drove a Renault 4 from Tel Aviv up to the Golan Heights, then all the way down to Eilat, and back up to Jerusalem.
Two years earlier, just a year before he died, my German father had traveled to Israel on a weeklong trip that our priest had organized. My mother had not been interested in such a pilgrimage, so my dad had taken his mother along. A pilgrimage was an unusual thing for both of them, since they were not religious Catholics, but Israel they wanted to see. In a way I was on my own pilgrimage now, traveling the Holy Land with images of my father in my mind: posing in front of the Baha’i Temple in Haifa, standing on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, rubbing Dead Sea mud on his body.
Although I later converted from Christianity to Judaism, I can’t say that I connected with Judaism on that first trip to Israel, but I didn’t connect with Christianity either, as I had expected to. On the contrary, the few Christian moorings I had were loosened during that trip. In Jerusalem, my father had been impressed by the hole where Jesus’s cross had been in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so I visited the church expecting to see it. Having grown up in Germany with its grand gothic cathedrals and pristine white and gold baroque churches, I expected a grand edifice guarding Jesus’s final, albeit brief, resting place. Instead I found myself in a dim building where crowds flung themselves on a stone slab or wound in a long line around a beehive-like structure. What were they lining up for? I couldn’t find a decipherable sign or an approachable guide. People looked like they knew what they were doing, or they were part of a travel group with a guide hollering in a foreign language, who seemed to know what he was doing.
I walked among the shadowy figures, around and around, up and down steps, minding the uneven ground of thick stone slabs, passing gloomy chapels where brittle oil paintings, blackened from years of candle soot, looked down indifferently upon would-be worshippers like me. I walked on, waiting for the church to begin. Where was the wide, lofty space of a cathedral?
Here, one cavernous chapel followed another, assembled wildly to clomp onto what used to be the shape of this Jerusalem hill. Between the tourists’ sneakers I naively scanned the floor for the hole of the cross. Incense burned in my nostrils; people hollered in strange tongues.
Lanterns hung on long, gleaming brass chains from arches and walkways up above. Now and then, rays of white light from a window up above slated down. When I returned to the heavy wooden door of the entrance, where a bright Jerusalem afternoon beckoned, I noticed steep, worn stone steps that led up to another cavern, dripping in gold and icons. Maybe here I would find what I was looking for. Again, worshippers were knowledgeably filing by something worthy of their devotion, crouching by a glass altar encased in gold. But what was it? Where was the hole of the cross? For a while I stood next to a priest in a long black robe and grizzled beard and watched as he swung a censer from the balcony of this chapel. I looked out over the milling masses to make sure I hadn’t missed an obvious guidepost. I hadn’t, and so I gave up. I climbed down and stepped out of the dark and into the sunshine, where my boyfriend and future husband was waiting.
(Excerpted with permission from Jumping Over Shadows, Copyright © 2017, published by She Writes Press. Images by Annete Gendler)