I sent this evening a new "chronique" to the French daily Le Monde. Incidentally it concerns "looks and clothing". I shall put it on when and if it is published in French. But, I have been thinking for several days about the way we behave, in particular as clergymen, in Israeli and partly Arab society. I do not work among the Arabs but live in their quarters and in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is very special. It is a sort of "autonomous" big body that encompasses the whole world and people of all backgrounds, origins, languages, cultures, lifestyles. I often say that we can meet here with people who would seem to belong to the 4th, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 16th, 18th and modern centuries. It is like a huge icon with a lot of characters that can really exist and frequent or ignore each other. This is a part of the "eternal look" of Jerusalem.
Yesterday, some Russian Orthodox clergy and lay people came into a restaurant, sat down, ordered bverages and cakes and did not greet me. It is very frequent. Clergy people do not greet each other or ignore the others, or even fake to ignore and not to see them. Where are in times of hardships. It is rude, freak, definitely not Christian and this was not the case some 30 years ago. It would have been unbelievable at that time to behave in such a way. There is more: the faces look at the others with suspicion: who's/what's that? what kind of Christian or heretic provided that here you can only be the sectants and heretics for some other "true" believers. Inside of a religious group people would avoid to greet. Good enough. So suddenly I said to the man who was about to take a picture of me without even asking for some permission, that he firstly should greet a priest; that it was the feast of the Dormition. I added that we ar very few now in the Holy Land and if we are true faithful, at least we could share the joy to meet and share. And I greeted them as also their clergy. They got in shock.
I then apologized for being a bit rude or at least provocative, but who we think we are if we cannot share the joy of being alive, together and share God's gifts. They stared for some minutes and said: "Father, please, we do apologize, but you should understand that you are the first priest to speak with us - okay you remind us what we should do and you are totally right and we would do! But you see, we could not be able to get into contact with any priest or nun here during our stay. They only shriek at us, push us away, tell us the doors are closed and "get away" and.. now you are nice and you are the first one. Then you see, you are the only one to contact people in a coffee-shop and it is clear that you address anybody. But we experienced just the opposite during our journey and now, we are a bit confused and don't know what to do!". I was about to add in Russian some "LOL". I had some "blessed bread - antidor'/antidoron" that I usually give to the Arabs and some sick I visit, took a big parcel and gave them for the trip and we share the "peace of the Lord". We also spoke about our respective "where, how, what... the news".
It is true that the local clergy is too serious. It is a tradition. Strictly dressed. Well, depends. In summer, the Greek and Armenian clergy wear open cassocks in the streets and dress correctly when going to meetings, liturgical Services. It shows that the clergy is used to the Middle-East way of living and things will slow down as the temperatures will drop. We have to wear polished shoes, the Greek hat, the big rason (mantle) or at least to have it with us. But we do not smile, rarely. The first reaction is to be suspicious. The Latins can be more open, but it can also be a sort of "cheese-smile" reflex that is constant among the Messianics. In fact, as time passes, visas are cut and the war is ongoing, we get more and more low profile and low gear. But "everything is well" - "I am doing well" is the permanent parroting phrase: just click, you get it, even when things are simply pathetic.
I love to contact people. I guess this is due to many factors. I know thr price of being alive and every encounter is as if the angels were present, a sign of obvious hospitality and humane feelings that each person is unique and that short encounters are forever. My real name (both as a born Jew and a Christian) is Abraham (Avi in Modern Hebrew nicknaming). I was asked in the Orthodox Church to use my Russian given name. But I do feel that it is a wonderful thing to welcome everybody as grand'dad Abraham did under his tent in the heat of the day (Gen. 18:1). There is another reason that makes sense and I did not relate to that. People told me: I am at home, in my homeland. I left 2000 years ago but all my life I dipped into the very essence of Judaism. Israeli society is mine and I dare speak or answer to any insult as well as start a discussion anywhere. Usually, people are definitely ready to talk. In this society, it is normal to interrogate, question and be questioned. If you play the game, people will be very open and nice.
And when they are not willing to say a word, rebuke you, just tell them you perfectly understand the situation. Everybody has a right to be in a bad mood, go through incredible problems, be fed up wit hhe rest of the world, their moms, dads, children, wives, partners, lovers, wooers... or they simply can't stand to be alone, which is absolutely crazy in a society that is a born set of tribes. This is why, I have daily discussions with Israelis and they can be very very pushy towards Christianity and a priest. They quickly get to the fact I am also one of them. They can say that I chose to bear a terrible burden and this shows they are aware of the burden of history. On the other hand, they would ask about Christianity because most of them understand that Christendom and Islam are present everywhere.
I decided to write this note because a friend wrote to me that "You are always joyous and you look good". True, I am not sad. The way is totally narrow. I would never kick anybody out or away. Drunkards and drug-addicts, prostitutes or hooligans... and so what? I often sit on stones, especially on special days at Kikar Zion (Square) and discuss. People can shout, be odious, arrogant and lack any sense of basic politeness... and so what? We are here and we are alive and we can share must more that screams. Interestingly, if you adopt the "wisdom and patience principle described by A. Einstein about Israel, it works and people come by, stop for a few minutes and would say more next time. I had helped to the translation of a rather renown German-born Israeli theologian, Schalom Ben Chorin and lately heard that he used to sit on a stone at the Kikar Zion on Friday mornings...
The first Christians used to do the same: living up there on stones, speaking on squares and never being afraid to face the "others". I was recently told by a hierarch that it is useless to meet with the people, nor to confess them because they don't really believe in what they pretend to be! Good gracious, but people need to search, need to seek God and just to share about the lives of their souls. If a Church responsible dares say that some people "pretend" to be what he or others would deny them to be or refuse to trust them, what believers are they? Jesus said not to reject anybody, that those who are not with us are not against us. The whole of the Jewish and Muslim traditions is to focus on authentic trust in God because whoever we are God does trust in us or, at least we may think He does.
Christendom should firstly show some love here. Priests may take off their cassocks or robes and go to night-clubs because they are under constant pressure. But there is more: if we cannot address the locals in their way, their speech, their modernity, their rejections, their being who they are - without any spirit of bringing them to any faith - but just walking around with open hands, maybe they will get much more of sympathy to those they tend to simply ignore.
I was once coming back to Jaffa Gate in full Greek form and heard a woman explaining her life in Russian with much details to two guys. It was a full messy way of life, all sorts of adultery, lies, theft and she felt sorry but, at the same time she was telling them she could not change. I often hear such discussions, but then I reached them and, out of a sudden, she said "Oops! Good it is a Greek priest; he did not understand what I said". I turned to her with a smile and answered in Russian: "No, sorry, I did understand and hear the conversation and it is your life, it is your responsibility, your way and it is good that you can speak about it with friends". She blushed and said: "Vot slavniy sviaschennik/вот славный свыященник - this one is a really kind priest!" - I said: "No! I am a "pravoslavniy=православный - Orthodox" priest". They laughed and we spoke for four hours in a coffee-shop. She progressively, very slowly changed her way of living and the men too.
Av aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]
30/17 August 2009 - 10 deElul 5769 - י' דאלול תשס"ט