Appreciating Beauty

These thoughts are for the 31st day of the Omer.  Joel published his photos from Turkey- so beautiful they bring a tear to my eye.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts for the Omer, Day 30

As we prepare to welcome the last Shabbat before Lag B’Omer, I wanted to share a short drash from our friends at

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "G-dcast- Emor", posted with vodpod

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  

We are home!

Okay, so I am typing it on Monday night and scheduling it to post on Tuesday night when we are scheduled to arrive home.

Just a final thought about what it means to be a pilgrim, and what made this journey different from others:

Once, I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.

A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets?  Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman era.

Just right of his head!”

“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman era?  It’s not important: but next to it,

Left and down a bit,

There sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

— Yehuda Amichai

I started us with that text at our opening gathering and it is that text that I read as we prepared to board the plane upon our leaving.

May we always be World Pilgrims.

Published in: on April 27, 2010 at 10:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections from Turkey, Last Day

Another beautiful day in Turkey; our last full day, as a matter-of-fact.

We awoke early in Izmir to catch a flight to Istanbul and as soon as we touched down we began to make our way to the Quincentennial Foundation Jewish Museum of Turkey.  The museum mission statement reads like this: “To promote, both within the country and abroad, the story of 700 years of amity between Turks and Jews…”  I did not read that statement until just a few moments ago, which helps explain my frustration at the museum and exhibits.  Nowhere, not once, is there mentioned any kind of discomfort between the Jews and the Turks.  No mention of the wealth tax, no mention of the non-Muslim tax.  No mention of pogroms.  Nothing.

I was happy to have seen a museum documenting part of the Jewish story in Turkey, but found myself disturbed by the omissions.  And now that I have read the mission statement, I understand my feelings but that does not excuse the belief I hold that the museum is irresponsible.  Part of the story is not okay; we are the Jewish people and we don’t ignore our history, we retell it.

After the museum we returned to the Grand Bazaar for one last day of shopping.  I was able to try on some suits and the price was only $50/suit- a great buy in the states.  And to say I was tempted would be an understatement.  But, in the end, I had a set price that I would pay no more than $40 for the suits and I had to stick to it.  But I looked good in them! J

After the Bazaar we returned to our trusty Istanbul hotel in order to check-in and then head out on our next adventure.  A few of us hopped in two cabs and headed to the Cemberlitas Hamami- the Turkish Bath.

What an amazing experience.  We first were separated between the genders and ushered into a dressing room.  I had to undress and wrap myself in a towel before walking downstairs into the main chamber.  The hot bathing area contained a large marble platform that I had to lie upon in order to perspire.  After a few moments, a Turkish man motioned me over to the front of the slab where he motioned for me to lie on my back.  He immediately pulled my left arm over my chest, which caused a medium to high level of pain. (NOTE: from this point on, I will not mention the pain level.  Just know that it hurt, and I feel great!)  He then pulled my right over, then pulled them both across my chest and put his weight on my arms.  He did similar work to my legs, stomach, and back before soaping me in a lemon/oil/soap.  I then got a pretty rough massage, with alternating hot and cold water being poured on me.  It was a series of pulls and presses, hot and cold water showers.  I was scrubbed down and I believe two or three layers of skin were peeled off.  Finally I was ushered into a corner and the same was done to my hair/head.

Another pilgrim referred to it as “intense.  Like waterboarding.”  I loved it.

I took a shower and got dressed before going back to the lobby to have some OJ with my friends.  I thought I had a story to tell… until I heard about the girls.

Apparently on the girls side, all the women are given black underwear and are told to go topless.  The “instructors” all wear black lace bra and panties- even if their weight and body hair dictate that they should NOT bearing lace bra and panties.  The experience was much less intense than on the man’s side.  But we all came back feeling refreshed.  Sore, but refreshed.

We also had our final dinner and group meeting tonight.  We discussed our group, our dynamics, our growth.  And we discussed those moments where we laughed.

I’ll close with a story, told by James during the Christian service yesterday but more applicable to today’s blog entry:

A wise but humble man named Yaakov had a dream.  In that dream, he journeyed to Prague, went to a certain bridge, started digging, and found much treasure.  Enough treasure to marry off his daughters and live in luxury for the rest of his life.  Well, Yaakov awoke and was excited to set out on his quest.  He journeyed for days, and each night when he went to sleep he would have the same dream, and each morning he would awake with renewed energy for his trip.

He finally arrived in Prague, found the spot, took out a shovel, and started digging.  Just then a policeman approached and placed him under arrest for vandalism!  Yaakov went to jail and on his way, told the policeman about his dream.  The policeman laughed.  “How silly you are to believe in dreams,” he told Yaakov.  “I never believe in dreams.  Why, if I did, I would act on the dream I have been having for the last week, that a man named Yaakov in a small town has a great treasure buried under his bedroom and he doesn’t even know it!”  After a while, Yaakov was able to prevail upon the policeman to drop the charges, if he left town immediately.

Yaakov rushed home and started digging.  Within minutes, he found a great treasure, as great as his dreams had been.

I retell that story because it has two important lessons that apply this Turkey trip:

  1. That sometimes you have to leave home, go on a journey, and return home to the same surroundings to truly see how much one has changed.  We are all returning home, and hopefully we will continue our friendships and continue to fold our new friends and experiences into our lives.
  2. The second lesson is that the journey is always more fruitful when listening to the interactions along the way.  We could have gone on any number of trips to Turkey.  But we wanted to be pilgrims.  And I am glad that we did.

So, tomorrow, there will be no blog entry- I will be travelling all day and there is no WiFi on the plane.  I will look forward to resuming the Omer counting on Wednesday.

In peace,


For pictures, cut and paste:

Or go to for even better pics!

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections from Turkey, Day 6

“Is that the crying Imam?”

Our journey today traced the footsteps of early Christianity as we made our way through Ephesus.  This city is important for two reasons to modern-day Christians: first, according to tradition, after the death of Jesus, John was told to care for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and he brought her here to Ephesus.  After some time here he died and was entombed.  It is rumored that Mary, too, died and was entombed here, though nobody knows for sure.  According to Catholic tradition, she lived her years here and died; Protestant tradition has her returning to Jerusalem but being entombed after death in Ephesus.  There is a tomb known as “Mary’s House” that has been a site of sacred pilgrimage for almost 2000 years, though scholars are fairly certain that the body in the tomb known as “Mary’s House” is not Mary.

As we made our way through the sites and the Roman ruins, I kept thinking about Clifford Geertz.  Clifford is a cultural anthropologist who has published volumes of work, though my favorite is his understanding of the cockfights in Bali.  He observes a tradition and attempts to map out the players, the audience, the history and the meaning behind the action.  Geertz presents a fairly controversial theory through his documents: meaning is more important than fact.  I thought of this as I walked the streets where Mary walked and observed other tour groups, some with tears streaming down their faces.  I considered this fact as I stood at the tomb of “Mary” and witnessed a nun guarding her remains.  I reflected upon this as I saw a half-dozen believers drink water that was believed to have sprung after Mary died.

I don’t know if meaning is more important that fact.  I like to think that the two go hand-in-hand; that when a “fact” is disproven, we move on and abandon the activity that reflected said fact.  But I know that we don’t, and I know that not all “facts” can be proven.  And when a fact can’t be proven- like who, exactly, is in the tomb of Mary?- behavior in itself becomes a matter of faith.

Before I could intellectualize it too much, I saw one of my fellow pilgrims wipe a tear from her eye.  I knew then that it was time to stop thinking and start, well, behaving.

We held the Christian service in the Colosseum, which can hold 24,000 people.  James Lamkin led a beautiful service and the Christians all participated.  One of the more incredible moments occurred when a Korean tour group started singing.  Keep in mind, we were in a public space- a very public space- and distractions were the norm.  At one point, the Korean group of women started singing, “How Great Thou Art”:

O Lord my God/when I in awesome wonder/consider all the worlds your hands have made/ I see the clouds and the rolling thunder/ I see the power of the universe displayed/ How great thou art, how great thou art.

They sang in Korean and members of our group, taken by the moment, began to sing along in English.  It was one of those beautiful moments that one simply cannot script, and one that cannot be replicated.

Following our visit to Ephesus, we went to a nearby masjid for prayers.  Upon our arrival, one of the pilgrims asked, “Is that the crying imam?” referring to a gentleman coming out to greet our bus.  As the story goes, this imam preached a sermon in 2002 about interfaith relations and the importance of working closely with Jews and Christians.  As if on cue, but with no advanced warning, the first World Pilgrims bus drove up and unloaded for prayers.  Without saying a word, Jews and Christians joined their Muslim friends in worship.  The surprised imam finished prayers and went to greet Plemon, the Muslim head of our group.  Upon learning about the World Pilgrims, he began to cry.  He sat and chatted with the group for a while, remarking about how surprised he was to see the group and how surprising it was to see Jews and Christians jump right into the Muslim prayer line, doing the motions and praying with intention.  And with that, he began to cry.

Since then, each Turkey pilgrimage has stopped by.  And since then, whenever he sees us, he begins to cry.

Crying Imam?  Meet the crying Pilgrims.

Cut and paste this link to see my pics:

Cut and paste this link to see Joel’s blog about the day’s events and much, much better pics:

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm  Comments (1)  

Reflections from Turkey, Day 5

On this morning, sad as it may sound, we have bid Istanbul goodbye.  We left early to get to the airport and boarded our plane.  About an hour later, we landed in Izmir, better known among us Atlantans by its English name, Smyrna.

We first noticed that Izmir is a very cramped city.  The city itself has been growing steadily for a very long time, which means that there are tall apartment complexes after tall apartment complexes.  Check out the picture (see photos on snapfish, link following this email) to get an idea of what I am talking about.

This area of Turkey has been populated by one group of people for a very long time- the Hittites.  For some of us, this may sound familiar: the Hittites were listed in the Torah as a group of people who are sometimes at war with the Hebrews, sometimes at peace with the Hebrews.  But the theory is that the Hittites are the people of Turkey.  The theory is upheld by Biblical understanding of geography, but… but.

As an aside, I am writing this now at the bar with our tour guide, Eran, who is discussing with me the idea of the 13th tribe.  Trust me: look it up.  13th tribe of Israel.

I led a Shabbat service this morning, standing on the banks of the Mediterranean sea.  How amazing it was to lead the service looking out over the sea I had seen from Israel.  Our group enjoyed it and, honestly, so did I.

Today was a short day- we had a lot of free time to spend together, just bonding.  A few of us started wandering around Smyrna and found our way to a massive book fair.  No, I did not buy anything.  Instead I wandered, like a kid in a candy store.

Tonight we had dinner and a short Havdalah.  It was nice to sing, to end Shabbat, and to reconnect as a group.  There has been a lot of alone time lately; well, not alone time, but time spent in small groups.  I was overjoyed to be able to reconnect tonight to the bigger group and our greater mission.  To sum it up, one of our group members, when relaying something that he is thankful for, said, “My wife told me to say thank you to the group, because she can hear in my voice a clear change from before we left.  She now hears happiness and comfort in my voice, something that has been missing for a long time.”

It is a powerful pilgrimage, and I do not take the responsibility of being a leader lightly.  Tomorrow we will explore Ephesus, and we will study history.  But for the first time in our journey, the Christians will take center stage.

I can’t wait.

For photos, cut and paste this link:

To see another perspective (with better pics) go to:

Published in: on April 24, 2010 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reflections from Turkey, Day 4

Apologies for the delay; internet crashed in the hotel last night and I was unable to post.  I will submit a post later to cover today’s events (still unfolding, now in Izmir), but this posting will cover Friday.

Today started out with a little breakfast where we were able to chat with Izak Mizrahi, a Jewish man who lives in Turkey.  Unfortunately, due to his scheduling conflict, most of his conversation was with me privately over breakfast.  When it was finally time to invite him to speak to the group, he told me he only had a few minutes, which led to a very anti-climactic session, as he was only able to welcome us to Istanbul.  My conversation with him was brief but he was able to tell me a bit about Jewish life in Turkey.  Honestly, there is not much new information to report.  But I include it anyway because I am certain- certain- that you would be interested.

We celebrated Jumah (Shabbat services for Islam) in a private room in the hotel.  Well, our first Jumah service of the day.  Imam Pleman and the Muslim pilgrims led us in the prayers and we devoted about an hour to the experience.  But that was only a teaser, for we next went to the Blue Mosque.  For Jumah services at the Blue Mosque, there are usually 25,000 people in attendance- and I was going to be with them.

Many of the non-Muslims, in fact, joined the Muslims in the Jumah service today.  We felt it would be an interesting way to bond, to see this important ritual, and to do so in a crowd would be inspiring.  We had no idea…

It started with us removing our shoes and navigating the crowd to actually get in to the Masjid.  I sat with Saadiq and Ralph while other pilgrims branched out throughout the space.  We arrived in time to get seats toward the back but it was literally shoulder-to-shoulder.  The service began with a short homily in Turkish, followed by the start of prayers.  Once again, I found myself reciting a Shacharit service in a Mosque.  And it was incredibly inspiring once again.

After Jumah, we grabbed lunch and made our way to the Basilica Cistern, a wonderful sight if you ever get a chance!  The cistern was built in the 6th century BCE and can hold almost 3,000,000 cubic feet of water.  The cistern is supported by 336 marble columns, many taken from other areas.  Knowing the date, and seeing the material that constituted some of the columns, I could not help but think that I was walking amongst the relics of the First Temple.  It was indeed an eerie feeling.

We then returned to the hotel and prepared for the Jewish service.  I had prepared a Shabbat service for the evening and even brought a guitar for use in the service.  We decided to hold our service on the rooftop of the hotel, glancing at reflected rays from the sunset.  And, in true Temple Sinai fashion, we had a Kabbalat Panim and I treated most of the group to either a glass of wine or tea.

The service went well and we had a nice Shabbat dinner afterwards where we continued discussing the service and Jewish interpretation of text and practice.  It was one of those real nice “no need to look at a watch” kind of dinners.

Ralph and I went out on the town last night, enjoying a beer and some great conversation at a local bar (NOT a tourist bar!).  And on our way back we bumped into Taqqee and Saadiq, who were just coming back from a trip to the strip as well.

Throughout my blog, I’ve not spent much time discussing another happy and plentiful product of the trip: laughter.  We all laugh quite a bit, both at each other and at jokes told by some of the more humorous members of the trip.  Often, we are able to turn moments of discomfort into moments of joy through the use of humor.  Case in point: interestingly, I have not seen one black person other than my travel companions in this country.  So when Taqqee and Saadiq go out, well, anywhere, people often stare.  And, inevitably, someone will ask Saadiq if he is Obama and Taqqee if he is Eddie Murphy.  No, neither of them look like these famous people, but that doesn’t stop the commentary.  And we have done our best to not let them forget their new celebrity.

On a pilgrimage such as ours, there will most likely be tears (as there have been).  There will most likely be honest dialogue and challenging conversations (and confrontations) (as there have been).  There, hopefully, will be much laughter (as there, thankfully, has been).

Published in: on April 24, 2010 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts from Turkey, Day 3

“Religion is personal but not private.”

Day three was perhaps my most stressful day, if only because I was tasked with arranging the Jewish elements of the trip.  I had instructions to arrange a visit with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey and to set up a visit to Neve Shalom synagogue.  Throughout the last month, I have been in regular contact, trying to confirm exact start times and to adhere to the necessary requirements to make the visit a meaningful one.  As of last night, I still did not have confirmation of an exact time to visit the synagogue.  In order to see why this would be a problem, read the next paragraph, lovingly titled, “A Beginner’s Guide to Jews in Turkey.”

Jews have lived in Turkey since 4 BCE and thrived under Byzantine rule.  When the Ottoman’s occupied Turkey in the 1300s, Sultan Mehmed II wanted to rebuild the ruined city of Constantinople.  So, he “invited” Jews, Christians and Muslims to move to the city.  The Jews viewed this as an expulsion and relocation from their homes, but still resettled.  When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they were invited in to Turkey and were welcomed into the business class of the country.  By the 1500s, the Jewish community reached 30,000 and there were 44 synagogues.  While Jews were taxed at a higher rate, they lived in relative security in Istanbul, even while Jews in other locations in the Ottoman Empire were being persecuted (Yemen, Jerusalem and Sefat especially).  By the start of the 20th century, there were 500,000 Jews in the Ottoman Empire, though as the Ottoman Empire began to decline after WWI, that number began to decrease.  In 1942, Turkey instituted a Wealth Tax that forced all non-Muslims to either pay a huge tax or lose every possession and be deported.  This impacted the Jews very hard.  There were some sad stories about the Jews in Turkey during WWII (google the Struma disaster) and pogroms as late as 1955, and today there are only 23,000 Jews in all of Turkey.  The most recent wave of anti-Semitism occurred against the synagogues, specifically Neve Shalom.  On September 6, 1986, a gunman killed 22 Jews during Shabbat services in the sanctuary; in 1992, Hizbollah bombed the shul (nobody was hurt), and in 2003, two synagogues were targeted with bombs exploding, killing 20 and injuring 300, most of whom were Muslims.

Okay, so that is the history part.  Now let me explain what was so : I was tasked with presenting this history and introducing the major components of the day to our group.  The problem is that the last two days have been wonderfully positive Masjid tours, understanding the beauty of Islam and the beauty of Turkey, and here I am, tasked with introducing the group to Judaism and to the Jews of Turkey.  I was unsure how I could do so without turning the day into a sad report about a dying and dismal community.

We began by going to Neve Shalom synagogue, and I relayed much of the history from above to the group.  I also asked them to think about their identity in their Muslim American/Jewish American/Christian American identity, which is the noun and which is the adjective?  I painted the story of the Jews of Turkey as a story of identity and safety.

It took our little group of 18 people 30 minutes to clear security at Neve Shalom, and when we got to the sanctuary, I was skeptical.  But that’s when it hit me- I saw my fellow pilgrims entering our sacred prayer space; the Jews looking with awe at the ritual objects that are both familiar and foreign; the Muslims and Christians, many of whom had never stepped foot in a synagogue, treading lightly so as not to offend but looking around with eyes that conveyed excitement, not unease.  That was the moment when I learned my most important lesson of the day: that all I needed to do was to sit back and trust that my fellow travelers would narrate their own experience.  Jewish tradition has a concept of tzim-tzum; that when God wanted to create the world, the universe was filled with God’s presence and there was no room to create. So God willingly retracted to leave an empty space and in that empty space God began to create.  For me, I needed to educate and fill the space with some information, but then I needed just to close my mouth, step back, and have faith in my friends.

And it was truly a lovely visit.  The synagogue is pretty and were it only for the architecture I would have been satisfied.  But my friends asked questions… and then asked more questions… and then more.  Their curiosity was inspired; the knowledge possessed by my fellow Jewish pilgrims affirming as they offered to answer many of the questions themselves.  Tzim-tzum: step back and see what fills that space.

Following they synagogue we met with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, a kind and energetic gentle man who relayed to us the story of the Jews of Turkey and his involvement.  this proved to be a highlight for my fellow pilgrims and for me; this wise man authored the quote that began this blog and has an approach to interfaith relations founded upon a layer of pain.  See, the rabbi was attending Beit Israel synagogue when the bomb went off in 2003.  By chance, he was resting his book on his lap and it fell to the ground.  He bent down to pick it up when a truck bomb outside was detonated, sparing him (he would have been killed) but injuring his son.  In fact, his son almost died and required more than a dozen surgeries to function again.  The rabbi considered responding with rage or sadness and decided that those emotions would not ultimately be effective.  So in his pain and guilt he reached out to Muslim colleagues to heal the rift between the communities.  Since that day, he was been dedicated to bridge-building between the faiths.

Allow me to share three other small teachings of the rabbi with you:

1. America “gets it”- we understand the link between our secular society and our spiritual life.  In fact, we put it right there on our money: In God We Trust.  We must rely on currency but we must use it to forward Gods will.

2. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not a conflict between Jews and Muslims; it is a conflict over land.  And we must not allow others to make it a holy war- it is a turf war.

3. Our tears can give way to positivity and beauty.  Consider the cemetery, bastion of tears yet filled with flowers.  Our tears provide water to the grass and flowers- we must recognize that a sad history does not necessarily mean one needs a sad present and future.

We left the Rabbi and went on a boat ride and tour on the Bosphorus River, giving us an opportunity to process the rabbi’s visit and our own journey before heading into the Grand Bazaar.  With over 4000 stores, this is the largest Bazaar in the world (or it used to be) and is a prime location for bargaining.  It was truly amazing- tons and tons of everything one could ever want!  I did not make a purchase… but we will return on Monday. 🙂

We then returned to the hotel for dinner and conversation, followed by a trip (for some of us) to yet another bar in Istanbul.  We had a great time, filling the night air with real philosophical and religious discourse.

Today was a hard day.  A good day, but a hard day.  And the take away is this: God gives us laughter and tears, laughter and tears.  Both go hand-in-hand.  My group did a lot of laughing today, and in our reflections this evening there were a lot of tears.  I realized that today I learned less about religion and less about the other pilgrims.  Today I learned a lot about myself.

Cut and paste to see pics:

Also check out for another perspective.

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Reflections from Turkey; Day 2

Our day today started off in a very ordinary manner.  We began with breakfast and I took the opportunity to spend some time with Tracy Seligman, one of our Jewish pilgrims, when we emerged after a satisfying breakfast to enjoy a cup of coffee in a cafe near the hotel.  It was quite enjoyable checking in with Tracy, who learned about the trip just over a week ago.  She signed up, knowing that she would be leaving in a mere 3 days- truly amazing.  And Tracy has proven to be incredibly insightful, bonding with the other pilgrims and making me very proud to be one of her rabbis.

We then journeyed to the first of our stops and arguably the most controversial of the day: Hagia Sofia.  The current building was built in 530 and it spent the next 900 years as the Cathedral of Constantinople.  Emperors and Kings were anointed in this cathedral and it was known by many as a major center of Christianity.  In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the cathedral was converted into a mosque.  The bells, altar and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over almost immediately.   A mosque it remained until  1935, when Turkey turned it into a Museum.  Just to offer insight into the size of this complex, it is only 6 meters shorter than the International bridge.  Remember: the bridge was built in 1973; Hagia Sophia was built around 530.

The building is truly amazing- keep in mind that, for about 1000 years, this building was the tallest cathedral in the world.  It literally took my breath away when we walked on those hallowed marble steps to put our feet down in the sanctuary.  There were really two things I was feeling, simultaneously: I was inspired by the beauty of the space, in awe of the architecture, the decor, the colors.  But I was also incredibly saddened by what was removed, by what was covered up, to turn the building into a Masjid.  It stood to me as a clear and telling example of supersessionalism: that Islam came later and could “cover up” Christianity.

I spoke about this with our Christian leader, James Lamkin, and my partner for the day, Saadiq.  James affirmed my feelings by expressing his; a room so important to early Christianity and the Christianity was all but erased from the space.  Saadiq also felt uncomfortable, but felt that the complexity of the story of Islam had to be told.  It is not his story, per say, but it is the story of his faith.

And then I found great beauty in this story.  When the Muslims conquered the Cathedral, they did not burn it down, they did not destroy it.  They rededicated it as a Masjid to God.  And then it hit me: Muslims understood this building as a building built to honor God and they acknowledged that.  They redefined the space, redirected the worship, and adjusted the focus.  But they sensed something divine in the architecture: the intent of the builders.  Yes, I still see the story as one filled with sadness.  But to dedicate the entire story to sadness would be a disservice to the history of this immaculate building.

We then traveled across the courtyard to the Blue Mosque, perhaps the 4th most well-known Masjid in Islam.  It was huge and grand and an amazing worship space.  The builders wanted to emphasize the worship of God and not the worship of the building, so much of the architecture escapes a cursory glance.  One can take stock of where he or she is, assume the position for prayer, and not be lost in the detail of the room.  Or one can focus on the detail and be inspired as one enters prayer.  We spent a few moments in quiet contemplation before moving onward.

After a short drive we found our way to Topkapi palace, subject of  a wonderful movie and a James Bond story.  The palace has been converted into a museum that has, among other things, Mohammed’s beard, a fragment of his tooth, and his clothing.  It also houses the swords carried by him and his followers.  Additionally, the arm and scalp of John the Baptist rest behind thin glass an on view of spectators.

And then I saw it.  The rod of Moses was also there.  The rod that turned into a snake.  The rod that split the sea.  The rod that inspired prophesy.  While I could not take pictures, I did buy a book with a photo inside.  The meager branch behind the glass forces one to reconsider Moses’ height and power as he spoke some of the most powerful words in Jewish (and global) history.  Or it isn’t real.  But I want so hard to believe… 🙂

After the Topkapi palace we went back to the hotel for dinner,then out on the town (for a few of us).  Ralph, Joel and Sue are a joy to be around and we had a lot of fun tonight.

I am still, hours later, struggling with the story of the Hagia Sophia.  I am hopeful that it does not become a metaphor for International Relations.

To see my photos, cut and paste this link:

Another pilgrim is posting photos and keeping a blog (and his pics are amazing):

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm  Comments (2)  

Reflections from Turkey; 1st Full Day

“God made us different so that we would get to know each other.”

What a true statement, a Muslim proverb relayed at the close of a very impactful day in Istanbul.

The day began simply enough with a fantastic breakfast.  The Hotel buffet had everything we could have wanted, including Turkish eggs which is a dish I love, otherwise known as Shakshukshah.  I had fresh tomato and cucumber, fresh strawberry yogurt, a sesame bagel with white cheese, and a cup of kiwi juice.  Oh, and of course, several cups of coffee.  Turns out, while in Turkey, you DO have to order Turkish coffee.

We boarded the bus and began our day with a bit of sightseeing, driving across the International Bridge which connects one half of Istanbul to the other.  Istanbul is divided in half- one half is on the European continent and the other is in Asia.  We crossed the bridge and quite literally entered another world.

On the other side we met with a group called the Journalist and Writers Foundation.  Committed to forwarding intellectual thought in Turkey and around the world, this group has managed to merge intellectualism with activism (a very, very difficult feat!).  They have departments devoted to women’s rights issues, family issues, politics, culture, media- the whole shebang.  Interestingly, our conversation turned quite serious when we discussed the Turkish ban on Muslim women wearing head scarves.  This concept was quite surprising to our group, considering the large Muslim majority in Turkey (there are 18 synagogues in Turkey, 180 churches in Turkey, and over 2000 mosques!).  But the government and authorities want to keep Turkey a secular country.  So, instead of permitting freedom of choice and running the risk of being overrun by traditional Muslims, they passed a law stating that no Muslim woman can serve in the government or attend university is she wears a scarf.  Our group listened to the discussion and voiced some opinions, but I think we were all too surprised to process it at the time.  In reality, most women wear head scarves in Turkey; so many do, in fact, that one takes note when a woman is NOT wearing one.

From there we went to our fist Mosque, which I will also refer to as a Masjid.  Mosque is the French term, Masjid is the Arabic term.  In an effort to be respectful, I am going to try to adopt the language of my fellow pilgrims.  Anyway, our first Masjid was the Prince Masjid, built in 1541 by Sinam the Architect in order to honor Suleiman the Magnificent.  The building was beautiful; I’ll try to post pics in the coming days.

While there we had a conversation about Muslim prayer- how to do it, what Muslims are saying, and how often Muslims pray the different parts of their worship service.  Mesjid means “place of prostration”, so the majority of the worship service is prostrating oneself before God.  It begins with a call, followed by the worshiper touching his/her ears (as if to say, “I hear the call to prayer.”).  Then one stands with hands held together (if Suni; if Shiite, one’s hands are at the side) and recites, privately, words of scripture.  Another call sends the person to his/her knees, and another call indicates that it is time to prostrate oneself.  This final prostration is called Sajdid and includes 8 points touching the ground- fingers on each hand, forehead, nose, each knee and each toe.  Another call indicates that one can return to his/her knees, and then another call sends one back to Sajdid.  A final call indicates that it is time to stand up.  This entire bit of choreography is called one repetition; each of the five services has a different number of repetitions.

I decided that I would take the opportunity to join my fellow pilgrims in prayer and we had the opportunity at this Mosque.  I did the choreography and went through the entire worship service.  I started with Barchu and touched my ears, I recited words of Torah (specifically verses about pursuing justice from D’varim and the verses in Bereshit indicating that we are all created in God’s image) and then fell to my knees and recited Yotzer (God created the world).  I did the first Sajdid to Ahavah Rabah (God gave us Torah) and the second to Shema.  I rose to my feet at Mi Chamocha, our song of freedom.  The second repetition found me getting the rest of the way through T’filah, and the third and fourth found me finishing the entire service.  A cool moment happened when the call came to fall to our knees when I was reciting “Va-anachnu korim umishtachavim umodim”- we bow before God.

This was a profoundly powerful moment for me.  Not only was I standing shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim men on the trip, but I was doing so in a Mosque.  I imagined myself like some of my Jewish ancestors, compelled to pray by Muslim authorities and, instead of reciting verses of the Korah, silently making their way through a Jewish service.  I also reflected upon the fact that I was not compelled to this action, that it was my choice, and how an act my ancestors were forced to do in a humiliating fashion was one that I could reclaim.  I thanked God for the changing times.

I was also thinking about how strange it was to mark Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in this fashion.  The prayer of longing my ancestors uttered was answered, and my prayer was one of giving thanks.

After leaving the Masjid, I walked in silence with two new friends toward our next stop for a long while.  I eventually asked them what they felt praying in that Masjid and heard their powerful recollection of their thoughts and feelings.  I asked them how they felt standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a non-believer and they remarked how surprised they were that I would step up like I did.  I then shared my own thoughts and feelings.

We went to the grave of Suleiman, housed in a Masjid that is being renovated.  Finding ourselves with some extra time, we took a leisurely lunch and then proceeded to the Rustem Pasha Masjid, known for beautiful blue frescos.  What a sight!

We walked through the world-famous Spice Market and then returned for a group conversation about the day, dinner, and a few of us went back out to enjoy the night-life in Istanbul.

God did indeed make us different so that we would get to know each other.  And now I understand that this is not a pilgrimage to Turkey; it is a pilgrimage to each other.

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Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 10:05 pm  Comments (3)