By John Wolfstone
The series is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign, LOVE SCHOOL — examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute.
I HAD NEVER LEFT THE WESTERN WORLD — and not all my previous travels, anthropological education nor “open-mindedness” could have prepared me for the shock that the Middle East gave me.
Israel was a Balagan of tribal feuds packaged in the thin wrap of Western Democracy.
The first part of my journey, I was on a free trip with 40 other mid-twenties Jews, sponsored by the infamous organization Taglit-Birthright. Obviously, a trip funded by the Jewish state was only ever going to tell us one side of the Israel story.
For two weeks we were paraded around various natural and cultural sites of significance where never was mentioned the messy tangle of occupation and human rights violations that is the West Bank and Gaza (even when we drove through the West Bank so we could all float in the Dead Sea for an hour at the shores of some luxury Israeli resort).
Having travelled solo through Latin America numerous times, I was not a fan of programmed tourism. I was relieved then when the tour ended, and the rest of the group boarded a plane home, content with their narrowly regurgitated and “official story” of Israel. I, having forfeited my free return flight to America, cheerily waved them goodbye, and then turned around into the night of Tel Aviv, ready to unearth the real story of this land.
However, I didn’t really know where unearthing this real story was to begin. I didn’t even know anything about being Jewish. Soon I realized that that was the first step if I wanted to know both my ancestors, and unravel any story of this supposed Jewish state.
So I went to where it supposedly all began — the Old City of Jerusalem.
THE OLD CITY, which with its cobblestone streets, archaic mausoleums, numerous religious sites, and massive 1500 year old Roman stone perimeter walls — not to mention the converging of Christian, Muslim and Jewish Quarters, respectively housing people of each tradition living the devout life — was a true marvel of humanity, striking me with an awe I had only ever known in the world of nature.
I landed at a Yeshiva (Jewish Boy’s Seminary) recommended to me for its free housing, free food and free classes it offered lost Jewish young men like myself. Looking back, I realize that perhaps my travel rule of — if it’s free, its good — does not necessarily apply to religious institutions.
The yeshiva was housed in a beautiful building, situated just a perch above the Western Wall, which as the last remaining part of the 2nd Temple time (ending in 70 A.D.), was now the holiest site to the Jews.
I use to love going down to the Wall at 2am, when only one or two other lone black hats (slang for orthodox Jews) would be there davening — undulating their torsos back and forth as they softly chanted the same prayers as their ancestors.
I wasn’t yet of the faith to muster prayer, so instead I would gently caress my hands across the ancient stones. Whether or not they actually held any holiness, the stones felt gloriously soft, as if all the tears and prayers cast at their foundation from the previous 2000 years had worn away their knowing that originally, they were laid for protection.
The Yeshiva, a supposed place of Jewish learning, was more like an antiquated religious frat house. There, other lost souls, hungry as I to fill that same void, eagerly signed onto whatever beliefs professed by Black Hat rabbis, each eager to receive their little pat on the head, reassuring them of their rightness.
I didn’t give a shit about impressing any Rabbi’s, and after hearing a few lectures that tried to biblically justify racism against Muslims, I decided that this was not where I’d meet my longing.
So I left. By then, I was getting good at that.
I WENT BY TRAIN TO VISIT SOME FRIENDS who lived in the north of Israel. As I walked across Jerusalem to catch my train, I had the brilliant idea to take a small detour to buy my friends, a household of 4 women, flowers. I wanted to put my best foot forward as a guest in this foreign land.
Buying flowers however became, like all things in Israel, a not-for-seen yet seemingly necessary complication. The old man florist, insisted, with his broken English, to show me all the flowers in the store, routinely building me expensive bouquets I didn’t at all want. Perhaps I was too polite. The old florist haggled me for 20 minutes before I bought exactly the same arrangement I had in my hand 20 seconds after walking in his shop. Having finally broken the spell of his salesmanship, I managed to leave the shop, only to realize that my train was departing in five minutes from a station eight city blocks away.
I ran down the clustered sidewalks of Jerusalem, flowers in hand, my heavy backpack resisting my attempt at agility. I arrived at the station platform just as my train was pulling away, and I, in a stupid and very dangerous fashion, tried to run along side it, hoping to find a way on, but to no avail.
I eventually reached the end of the platform and was resigned to watching the train pull farther and farther away. In a fit of anger, I threw my flowers down on the concrete, yelling:
With my exhalation I noticed an old Jewish Grandmother, hunched over in her seat on the waiting bench, face wrapped in traditional religious head covering, scowling at me.
“Vat? Vas yur heart on dat train?”
I realized now that the image of a young man clutching flowers and chasing a departing train must of looked like a pathetic Hollywood cliché.
“No maam,” I replied, “I don’t know why I was running — I can just wait an hour for the next one.”
“You yung boys, alvaays in such a hurry for ze heart.”
The old Jewish Grandmother then dragged her arm up and slowly extended her pointer finger, to only jab it repeatedly into her chest while saying:
“Ze heart — eets right heere, eees always right heere.”
She must have not known that I had already left my heart — even before I made it to San Francisco.
SO I WAITED THE HOUR at the train station; my flowers — like my mood — now beginning to droop. Every so often I’d look at the old grandmother, who would catch my glance with her beady dark eyes and in the same ratchety manner, finger herself in the chest while mouthing “right heeere.” I’d nod back at her and feign a smile, trying with all my cotillion-bred politeness to veil any expression of deep annoyance.
Towards the end of the hour, I noticed a younger woman enter the station, first because of her amazing hair of golden curls and next because of her pink yoga pants. In a country of the pious, bold acts of modernity tend to stand out.
I felt the peculiar need to talk with this woman, but bound by shyness, I kept my ass planted on the waiting bench.
Soon the train came and the old Grandmother, Goldi-locks-yoga-pants, and I boarded the same car.
Goldi-locks and I sat on opposing ends of the train car, while the old Grandmother sat a few rows behind me. For the first half of the ride, I couldn’t stop gazing at Goldi-locks.
In the shackles of his fear, it’s easy for a man to revert to this masculine gaze.
The old Grandmother must of noticed, for at one moment, while I was off in some day dream, she crept up next to me without my noticing and proceeded to give me a sudden whack with her newspaper.
“Bubuleh — Yu vill burn yur eyes out — go talk vith her!”
And with that she gently nudged my back. I was caught off guard by her sudden whack and demand, and before my daydream could fully dissolve and any nagging thoughts of doubt enter, I was walking down the aisle towards goldi-locks.
When I reached her, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked “so you do yoga?”
A pair of warm blue eyes rose to mine, and with a smile she replied, “yes.”
I sat down in the empty seat next to her and we began a long conversation about her history in yoga. At one point she, with a slight tone of interrogation, began to ask me on my views of Palestine.
I could sense that she wanted a certain answer, however I couldn’t decipher exactly what answer she wanted. So as to play it safe, I responded that I wasn’t sure, as I was still new in the land and rather uneducated in the matter.
This answer, however vague, seemed to satisfy as she began to explain to me that her current project was organizing an all male yoga teacher training for Palestinians and Israelis to be held in the West Bank, in an area accessible to both parties.
“Why is it all male?”
“In Arabic culture, men and women can’t be in the same room — it’s forbidden.”
“Ahh,” I nodded.
After talking about various details of the program, and feeling rather warm in our connection, she ended the conversation by asking me if I would be interested in joining the training. Without hesitation I said yes.
The story of this land was about to unravel itself.
LATER THAT MONTH I, despite touristic warnings, boarded a bus in Arab East Jerusalem headed for the West Bank Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala, where the training was to be held. After spending a month in the more metropolitan parts of Israel and rarely seeing any Arabic peoples, I was amazed to realize that by simply crossing certain seemingly invisible lines, I had stepped into an entirely different world.
For most of Jewish Israel it seemed, this world didn’t exist — despite the fact that 6 million Arabic peoples live in the whole of areas controlled by Israel, 1.4 million of which live inside Israel proper as I heard many Israelis call it (in reference to the non-occupied territories or pre-1967 borders).
After arriving in Beit Jala, I walked the kilometer with my bags to the place where our training would take place, which somewhat synchronistically, was literally right next to the separation wall — a huge and ugly concrete wall which spans the entire “green line” (the name for the boundary of the West Bank).
The separation wall, like it’s fenced counter part on the U.S.-Mexico Border, is meant to keep the brown people out.
The yoga training, aptly titled, Yoga for Peace, was as much about sitting and listening to each other’s stories, as it was about learning how to teach yoga poses. As Rachelli (AKA Goldi-locks) told us,
“Peace begins when we actually hear and see one another.”
I was floored. The stories of my Palestinian counterparts were horrifying. I heard tales of unprovoked arrest (by the Israeli army), indefinite detention and torture. Most of these young Palestinian men had been to jail at one point or another (without clear reason) and many spoke of nights when the army would come unannounced and violently arrest every man in their village between the ages of 15–45 because as usual, they were “suspected terrorists.” There’s a joke in Palestine that serving time in jail is the rite of passage equivalent of having a bar mitzvah in Jewish Israel. As one Palestinian friend put it,
“At age 13, the Jews get a big party and lots of presents, but we, we get middle of the night arrest raids and crying mothers.”
After 200 hours (the length of the training) of hearing such stories, I began to understand the link between my own traumatic Jewish past and the current political situation in Palestine.
THE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE is full of trauma, from the first burning of the temple to the Holocaust, right up to my own experience with anti-Semitism. And now in Israel-Palestine, witnessing first hand the trauma the Jewish state is inflicting upon another other, it hit me: trauma begets trauma. The abuses of our past, unexamined and unhealed, inevitably lead to violent acts of our future.
Just as how a parent who was abused as a child will often abuse their own children, the Jewish people, with festering cultural wounds, were unloading immense suffering to the Palestinians.
Yet no one, at least that I knew, was speaking about this link of historical trauma to the present political crisis. Many activists globally (including a strong minority of young people in Israel and the U.S., including myself) want Israel to recognize and heal the situation with Palestine. Yet few realize the self-healing that the Jewish people would need in order for this to be a reality.
Most Jewish people on Earth, myself included, had closed off their hearts to feeling the pain of our past and therefore most had also closed off their hearts to feeling the pain of the present, for which we were now conduit.
In those two weeks, while doing my own deep inner work (it was yoga after all) and listening to sad stories from both sides of the Green Line, my heart once again began to break.
It had been four years since my heart first broke with Samantha. That break never fully mended. Now, feeling that awful stabbing in my chest once again, I began to realize that my longing which, propelled this crazy journey ½ around the world, was coming from the wound my heart still held.
I felt dizzy. — How to move forward knowing that this opportunity to be in the land of my ancestors came at the cost of an entire peoples’ right to sovereignty?
I asked this question to Rachelli, and her answer was to promptly invite me to a Non-Violent Communication (NVC) training course, also gathering Israelis and Palestinians together, to be held right after the yoga course ended at a different West Bank location near the ancient city of Jericho.
After two weeks immersed in what Rachelli called peace work — was I once again to sign myself up for more listening, more diving beneath the surface of this historic conflict, more fingering the wound of my heart break?
Did I really want to unravel this story?
Like most important decisions in my life, my mind screamed no but my heart propelled me forward.
So I swallowed what now seemed to be my fate, and packed my bags for Jericho.
ON THE BUS RIDE to the Jordan River Valley, I sat wondering at the oddity of how at first, I came to this land to know the history of my ancestors only to now find myself engulfed in peace-work aimed at healing present atrocities in hopes to build a better future.
Somehow though, this all made sense — at least to the language of my longing.
The NVC seminar built on the reconciliation work began at the yoga training, now providing us an appropriate system of language with which both sides could empathetically meet each other. In exchange for my course tuition, I made this video for the NVC MidEast’s fundraising campaign, featuring footage and interviews from that seminar.
What amazed me the most about NVC, was the depth brought to conversation by just a slight reorientation in communication strategies.
In the course, I also met a traveling by bicycle Social Circus, composed of Germans and Israelis, 2-Wheels-4-Change, whose mission was to use Circus as a means for peace work. I had obviously found my people. And when I learned that the troupe was preparing for a large project of service inside a Syrian refugee camp, I was hooked.
I spent the next few weeks building a bicycle and realigning my self to prepare for such an endeavor.
During this time, I attended a party for peace workers, hosted by a group calling themselves the Peace Research Village (PRV). The PRV is a group of Israelis, Palestinians and Internationals who live together with the vision of building a large ecological peace center in the Middle East.
At the party I learned that the PRV was founded originally as a subsidiary project of Tamera, the Peace Village in Portugal I first heard about two years prior from Daniel Pinchbeck.
At the party, the PRV was selling literature from their vast library, including many writings from Tamera. Remembering my original curiosity at hearing Pinchbeck’s enthusiastic stories of this place that was developing “new social technologies around love,” I bought a compilation of Tamera’s writings.
The woman who sold me the book asked me what had brought me all the way from America to this land. After thinking about it for a while I answered:
“Well what long ago started as typical young love heart break, somehow turned into a desire to know my Jewish ancestors, which somehow now has led me to be involved in all sorts of peace work.”
The woman laughed at my answer, seemingly pleased by what I thought was a rather jumbled response.
“You know the pain of your young love and the pain of Palestine — it’s the same.”
“I don’t follow what you mean.”
“When our heart hurts — it hurts the heart of the world.”
And with that our conversation abruptly ended. A gong had sounded, the entire party was called to gather in order to sing happy birthday to one of their long-time residents.
“When our heart hurts — it hurts the heart of the world.”
The words echoed in my mind underneath sounds of the Arabic happy birthday song, haunting me with their apparent incomprehension. Soon I was sucked into the rush of celebratory clapping and dancing, and those words, along with the book of Tamera I purchased, fell into the bottom of my traveling bag.
A few days later I mounted my newly built bike with the others from my new Circus crew and the next few months were swept into the excitement of public shows, long hours bicycling, and various small teaching projects in towns throughout Israel-Palestine.
Two months into the bicycling journey we crossed over into Jordan and proceeded to a small Bedouin village in the North — our access point to work in Al-Zaatri, the largest refugee camp at the world, at that time housing over 150,000 refugees from the Syrian Civil war.
In Al-Zaatri, there existed a small circus arts program, which was ran by young adults from within the camp (refugees) who had been previously trained by a Finnish Circus. Our task was to conduct another month-long training for these teachers, who were responsible for teaching 100 other children of various ages, providing an important creative and social outlet for the otherwise horrific conditions of living in a U.N. camp.
By day we were in the camp teaching various aspects of circus, pedagogy, and even, as my main input, film making for which I fundraised in order to give the Syrian teachers my professional video camera. And by night, our European-Israeli-American Circus troupe would be huddled in a small house in a traditional Bedouin village, cooking dinner, resting, planning the next days activities and overall staying busy and positive to counteract the reality of us constantly hearing bombs being dropped in the war, which loomed just 6km away cross the Syria-Jordan border.
It was there in those long desert evenings that I would sit on the roof, under a canopy of brilliant Middle Eastern stars and with only a candle for light, that I began to read the book from Tamera.
Mortar blasts, frightening at first, soon became the perfect backdrop for reading about Tamera’s political theory - which linked the widespread violence and destruction on Earth, to the original conflict and violence found in Love.
And as if to make this matter more dramatic, the conservative Muslim village we were in, required all its women to be veiled and kept locked behind closed doors. Even our female circus members couldn’t venture out in the village at night — and in daytime — only with male company.
The West from which I came wasn’t any better, where the veils cloaking female freedom were not Burkas but a gross objectification, over sexualitzation, and an entire consumer culture aimed towards fulfillment of the masculine gaze. At this point, I wasn’t sure which society, East or West, was farther from true liberation and justice — both seemed rather broken.
I found in the ideas of Tamera much solace, knowing that despite my current reality of impoverished refugees and civil war, there existed places where humans were doing a different form of peace work, researching into what they saw as the core of these structural issues of violence and war.
Thus, when a month later, as I was purchasing my return ticket from Israel home to the U.S. in order to oblige some brief summer commitments and I realized that it was — by some ecologically stupid reason — cheaper to buy a roundtrip fare than one-way, I made the return destination Portugal.
So, after traversing over 15,000 miles from San Francisco to Colorado, Alaska, Haida Gwaii, Escalante, Israel, Palestine and now Jordan and three years after first hearing its name, I was now to be headed to Tamera.
The FINALE PART 5: At Tamera — Coming in future weeks
— — —
This series is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign, LOVE SCHOOL — examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute! Campaign ends August 12th, 2019.