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Old-time religion in new-fangled (sort of) Israel


One of the great things about having sabbatical in Israel in 2007 was the experience we had over and over of realizing Whoa! This place in mentioned in the Torah! They weren’t kidding us! Familiar names were everywhere, history laid out before us. Let me tell you specifically about my run-in with Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, twin peaks mentioned at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you listen to the commandments of YHWH your God that I command you this day; and curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of YHWH your God, but stray from the path, and follow after other gods who you don’t know. When YHWH your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Eval.

(And, just for good measure, don’t forget to tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.)

My poem, If We Lived In This House, is an account of a day spent on Mount Gerizim, now squarely on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, with a lovely view across to Mount Eval and down into the valley where sits the city of Nablus.

Actually, this was our 2nd trip to Mount Gerizim. Our first time up was with Dror Etkes, former director of Peace Now’s Settlements Watch program. He was driving us around the West Bank – a story for another time – and suggested we have lunch with the Shomronim (Samaritans) who live on the mountain, having been relocated from / thrown out of Nablus, their home for centuries. Over lunch, we agreed to come back to see Passover celebrated on the mountain.

The Shomronim don’t recognize anything Jewish after the Babylonian exile (the Talmud, for starters). Their holy texts are not written in Hebrew; there was bad blood between the Israelites and the Samaritans back in the day.  Their modern Israeli identity cards list them as Jewish. They speak Hebrew or Arabic, depending on where they live and how old they are. Official estimates put their population at just over 700.

Each Passover, the mountaintop fills up with people who have come to see them celebrate the old fashioned way: by slaughtering dozens of lambs, dotting the fresh blood on their foreheads, and partaking of unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Thousands of people – many of whom are Israeli settlers and/or people who await the building of the Third Temple – sit in bleachers and stand on roofs enthralled by the goings-on, pointing to the knives and fire pits and doomed lambs. All of this happens in the shadow of Mount Eval, visible if you look in the right direction.

Bruce & I went up the mountain with Dror and his co-worker Hagit. We drove the road to Mount Gerizim, a narrow strip that passes through the West Bank and by the Hawarra checkpoint outside Nablus, after visiting with a Palestinian friend of Dror’s in a town whose name I can’t remember. There we drank tea and were gifted with freshly pressed olive oil and amazing pita bread. The day was surreal, filled with contradictions and confusion. The poem says it more succinctly than I can here. You’ll just have to read on.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Ackerman permalink
    08/06/2010 11:49 am

    A lovely poem & meditation, Sue. I think that experience would make me a big schizophrenic!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/06/2010 11:51 am

      Schizophrenic – not so much. Confused and amused and thankful for poem material (and my friends).

  2. 08/09/2010 1:06 am

    Dude – I once smoked a nargila (the only time I ever smoked a nargila, now that I think of it) with Shomroni women on Har Gerizim. It was awesome!

    One of my other favorite memories of that day is hearing from one of the men how the fact that the women have this serious niddah by which they’re completely cut off from doing anything while they have their period means that the women get this monthly mini-vacation and they’re treated like queens — and like two seconds later hearing from a woman in the middle of her niddah time telling me that he was crazy, it’s like being in jail.

    Ah, the stories the menfolk sometimes tell themselves about us!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/09/2010 1:15 pm

      Yes, yes, and the stories we tell about the lives of others that we really would have no wish to live! That’s what I felt over and over that day on the mountain. Would all those right-wing settlers really want to get rid of their rabbis in favor of priests (with fabulous robes, no less)? Would they really want to honor Mount Gerizim instead of Jerusalem? Would they really give up a good 50% of the “modern” Jewish holidays? Really?

  3. Gabe Eisenstein permalink
    08/10/2010 10:25 am

    “Their holy texts are not written in Hebrew.”

    What you really meant was that, while in the Hebrew language, they are not written with the alphabet that is nowadays called”Hebrew” by most people. But their alphabet is the ORIGINAL Hebrew alphabet, while the one used by Jews is really the Aramaic alphabet, which gradually replaced the original after the Babylonian exile.
    Scholars do call the Samaritan alphabet “Hebrew” or sometimes “Paleo-Hebrew”.

    Enjoyed your post.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/10/2010 7:59 pm

      My bad. Thanks for this correction. You can see my biases.

      Hope you’ll stick around and continue to enjoy my ramblings.

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