Jews and Gentiles will Sit Down Together

Jerusalem: two Catholics invited to the Jewish Feast of Booths. Rabbi Israel, Ephraim, and Angelica read together the interview with Fr Giussani on the Mystery and the desired unity between Jews and Christians. The report of an incredible, but real, encounter


On the night of the feast of Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths (which recalls the forty years the Hebrew people spent in the desert before being able to enter the Promised Land), in Mea Sharim, the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, the streets are lit with a thousand lights. In every house, a sukka, a booth, is set up, and the families eat, drink, and pray together. Then they go out and dance in the synagogues and the streets. Late in the night, everyone returns home and sleeps together in the room that has been turned into a booth. It is the most beautiful and the warmest night of the year, when one feels the breath of Him whose name cannot be written, perceives His friendship and covenant, and hopes that the Promise is closer to being fulfilled.

Happily dancing in the synagogues are people we have sometimes seen in our cities, dressed in black, wearing dark hats or broad busbies recalling the family’s Lithuanian origin, with curls hanging down either side of their faces.

They dance happily and feel like brothers, united by Someone they feel to be close and powerful and who will come soon. They dance joyfully in big circles; in the center, young and old trace strange figures and jump agilely with great leaps. You would never think it possible, meeting them in the streets, sunk deep in their theological discussions. The other Jews, atheists or at least non-Orthodox, do not exist–they are like the air you walk through; never mind the goyim, the Gentiles, the non-Jews.

On the edge of the ravine
So what are two goyim doing there, in the Mea Sharim night, dancing with them and filming their celebration? What is a non-Orthodox Jewish married couple doing there, who are famous all over Israel, except here?

And what are Fr Giussani’s books doing there, lying on the table next to the Torah, and what is the latest issue of Traces doing there? And why, a short distance away–but as though light years away because of the barricades, the war, and the abyss between languages and mentalities–is a Palestinian Christian getting ready for a meeting that is maybe even more incredible than the one we are watching this evening?

We have to take a few steps backward in time and in space–in time, to four years ago; in space, to the desert below the Dead Sea. On that day, Ephraim, an Orthodox Jew from an old Orthodox family, a kind-faced giant with blond hair and blue eyes testifying to his Canadian origin, was walking with his family, his wife Ruth and their ten children, and other friends along a ravine. In a matter of seconds, his foot slipped, and Ephraim fell into the ravine. A broken leg is a serious matter when you weigh more than 300 pounds, and climbing back up an almost vertical cliff alone is impossible. It was evening, and the bright red sky at sunset did not bode well. The group set out walking in search of help, but by this point it was almost dark and Ephraim was resigning himself to spending the night alone at the bottom of the ravine, a dark night in the desert, in the company of jackals and snakes.

Those strange friends
Salvation arrives in truly unexpected ways in this part of the world, and this time it bore the faces of Yehuda and Angelica. He was born on a kibbutz, and she is a Roman Jew. Married, with four children, they were the leaders of a Zionist youth movement which is pacifist, secularist, and leftist. In short, the exact opposite of everything that Ephraim considered sacrosanct. But Yehuda, who had fought in the army in the special forces, was accustomed to difficult situations, like the time he and his team saved a group of Jewish children who were being held hostage by the Palestinian militia. He lowered himself thirty-five yards into the ravine and hoisted the giant onto his back, bringing him to safety. Ephraim had been slightly shocked to find that his savior came from one of those secularist kibbutzes, where it was rumored that they even ate rabbit and, horror of horrors, pork… But when somebody saves your life, you have to give him at least the benefit of the doubt, and so he invited the couple to celebrate the Sabbath at his house. Ephraim is a curious sort, and he had wanted to see often these strange friends who were so different (but who at any rate did not eat either rabbit or pork). Years later, when he found out that two goyim had come from Italy for a television report on Angelica, who had enchanted hundreds of people at the Meeting in Rimini, he had no hesitations: he had to meet these very strange Gentiles. Thus, Luigi Amicone and I found ourselves celebrating in the sukka and giving him The Religious Sense, and while we were eating, Ephraim gave a start: “The prophet Zechariah says that when the Messiah comes, all the peoples will go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Booths, and Jews and Gentiles will sit down together. Your presence here must mean something.”

Rabbi Israel
That’s the way it was, and this is why he took us to the great celebration and big dance which few non-Orthodox Jews have ever attended, much less goyim like us! But Yehuda and Angelica were pointed out as Ephraim’s saviors and we were their friends; it didn’t matter that we were goyim–and who knows what kind of disgusting things we were used to eating. It didn’t matter any more; we were welcome there, and they shook our hands and invited us to dance.

Rabbi Israel took us aside and spoke with us, and Ephraim was moved when we read to him the interview with Fr Giussani published in last month’s Traces. His blue eyes lit up at hearing words like “Being is Mystery, a mystery that exists… The Mystery that makes us exist, that surrounds us, that arouses our questions and desires, and that proposes itself on every side, is Charity. This is how God is borne…” And he jumped at the most unexpected statement: “I believe that unless the end of the world comes first, sixty or seventy years from now, Christians and Jews can be one.”

Angelica, who was translating into Hebrew, held her breath and stared into the Mea Sharim night. And she continued to speak of her Communion and Liberation friends and to ask us about Fr Giussani. She told us that the next day she had a date with Samar, her Palestinian Christian friend who has an orphanage in Bethany; they would go together to the Temple Wall and then to the Holy Sepulcher along the Via Dolorosa. The next day, Samar found Ephraim too in front of the wall, and the Orthodox Jew gathered together ten friends to bless this Arab Christian woman: “I know you do great things,” he told her. “Go on like this.”

The right road
Then the two women walked through the Arab quarter as far as the Church of the Sepulcher. There were no tourists because of the war; they were alone in front of the Stone where Jesus was laid and that witnessed the Resurrection, and on Calvary, in front of the hole in which the Cross was inserted. Samar prayed, while Angelica was more wide-eyed than ever, as though to embrace with her gaze the Mystery that was happening in her life, already so full up to now with her love for Yehuda, her children Gal (who had just left for military duty), Yotam, Kfir, Or… her work on the kibbutz, the education of the young people, the aid to children who are victims of terrorism, who had lost their parents in the suicide attacks, her drama courses, her Arab and Jewish students, the book she had just written… a life already so dense, to which now this new encounter had been added. These new friends do not ask her to add anything, though, but simply embrace all of her life with her.

The Orthodox chief rabbi wanted to meet Angelica. In her heart she had one question: “What does all this mean for me, what is the Lord saying to me?”

“Go on like this,” the chief rabbi said to her. “It is the right road”.