I have been dipping into the Velveteen Rabbi blog for at least nine years, which Rachel Barenblat began writing when she was a rabbinical student (“When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”). She is a beautiful writer, covering all sorts of rich and varied topics, from poetry-writing to parenting her young son. I especially appreciate her weekly commentaries on the Torah portion, as many Christians tend to neglect these Old Testament books and we miss out on a lot. And even if her blog weren’t so interesting, I’d like it anyway because of the pun in the name.
A few months ago she told me that she was coming to the Holy Land to celebrate a family bar mitzvah, and invited me to meet her in Jerusalem. I have never seen her in real life before, as she lives in the USA and I’ve never gone further than a metre into the Atlantic (when paddling off Lancashire beaches as a child). I was so excited at the prospect of finally meeting a long-standing blogging friend that last night I took a while to get to sleep, which wasn’t great considering that the clocks went forward and took with them an hour of my morning snooze. I hurried out with my hair still wet, hastily cramming things haphazardly into my handbag as I went, and scurried up the Via Dolorosa fifteen minutes after our agreed meeting-time. (Which is still punctual by my standards.) Luckily she was staying in the guesthouse at the Ecce Homo convent, which is easy to find, even for someone who possesses my remarkable talent for getting lost in places I visit every week.
Rachel must be a lovely rabbi. I say this because I usually feel very stiff and awkward around people whom I’m meeting for the first time, struggling to make eye contact and to speak in anything other than scripted stilted sentences (“How are you? It’s a hot day, isn’t it?”), but almost as soon as we started talking I felt completely at ease. By the time we reached the place where we were having lunch, I felt as though I’d known her for years. A clergy person who has the knack for making people feel like old friends must be very good to have around.
As food options in the Old City are limited, I introduced her to the bookshop-cum-cafe on Salah ed-Din Street, which is perhaps where good activists go when they die. It is furnished with plentiful mint tea, zaatar wa zeit, chocolate cake, and what feels like every book ever published on or in Palestine – novels, poetry, thick glossy coffee table books on embroidery and cuisine, history books, folk music, photography, language textbooks. “I could easily spend all my money in here,” commented Rachel, and I know the feeling. This place brings me perilously close to bankruptcy every month.
I had brought her two presents from Bethlehem, chosen after intensive negotiations with a horde of local children and the shopkeeper, who seemed to feel that she had power of veto over anything that she judged to be an unsuitable gift. In the end the collective settled on an olive leaf pendant, delicately moulded in silver, and a vibrant pink keffiyeh. I wanted to choose one in a more muted colour, but the children were adamant: it had to be pink. (Luckily they did not absolutely insist on my choosing something that was covered in sequins and sparkles.) Rachel had a gift for me too, a copy of her poetry anthology 70 Faces. These poems are all woven from Torah and I have earmarked the anthology as my next devotional book, once I’ve finished reading Jim Forest’s The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Talking to Rachel about prayer and faith felt very natural (again, it’s a topic I’m hesitant to discuss in-depth with many people) and I got the sense that despite being in different religions, we are similar in these things – so similar that I spontaneously suggested visiting one of my favourite Jerusalem churches, St Peter in Gallicantu, so she could see it. She loved the intricacy of the mosaic work, and the stillness; for a few brief minutes we had the main part of the basilica all to ourselves, in all its pure silence.
As we drank our tea and ate our chocolate cake, we talked about many things: books, Rachel’s experiences visiting Hebron, the bar mitzvah at which she had just officiated, her little boy, my work in Bethlehem and my studies, her desire to learn Arabic, the occupation, religious responses to injustice. I have a newfound respect for Rachel, having learned that her politics are quite different from those of her relatives and some congregants; it can’t be easy to be a religious leader in her circumstances. But she makes it look – not easy, but certainly beautiful and worthwhile, to the point where I think that even people who disagree with her must stop and look twice at what she does and how she is.
The day passed so quickly. Only my backache and the sun’s tingling on my face tell me how long we spent outside. Just before we parted, Rachel to go to Shabbat services, me to come home and collapse early to bed, we stopped for falafel near the Damascus Gate. The friendly proprietor (immediately in my good books because he didn’t go into a spasm of horror when I said firmly that I didn’t want hummus or tehina in my sandwich) took a slightly blurry photograph of us:
I hope that when Rachel returns, she will be able to give some summer classes in poetry-writing and perhaps a short taster course on Judaism for the children in Bethlehem – both could be worked into our interfaith and cultural heritage programs. Maybe one day I will get across to her mind-bogglingly huge country (how is it even allowed to be that big?!) and see her there. For now I don’t know when we’ll meet again, as she has a very busy life on the other side of the Atlantic, but I’m sure there are lots of interesting blog posts in between now and then.