Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Back in the Classroom

This fall I am lecturing at five universities in the cities of Lviv and Chernivtsi, including Lviv National University. Here I am with a few of this year's students. It is a continuing delight to associate with brilliant and personable young people, especially in this amazing land. Returning to the classroom always inspires me to dig deeper in my own studies and attempts to learn new things. Even at age 53 I feel the need to get back in the classroom, over and over, for the rest of my life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Apartment Which Elevates Thought

I am staying in a beautifully decorated and maintained apartment in a nineteenth century building in the city center of Lviv. The owner of the apartment is a Canadian artist who has filled the rooms with paintings and other works of art, as well as many fine old pieces of furniture. In fact, this room reminds me of the inner vision I have always had of the characters of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I first read as a fifteen year old and have read many times since. Whenever I walk into this fine sitting room at No. 2 Lysenka Street, I can almost imagine the Rostov's and the Bolkonskys at dinner or conversing. This is where I get to serve my own little solitary breakfast or dinner each deay! It is a delight to hang my hat here for the next two weeks.

The apartment is emblematic of this fine old city, which is one of the great treasures of the old Hapbsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The city center is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and contains a wealth of significant churches, museums, squares and among the finest late Renaissance architecture found anywhere in Europe. I haven't had a chance to do any exploring yet, but am looking forward to taking many solitary walks and excursions over the next weekend.

This all gets me to pondering how places often have the capacity to elevate one's very thoughts. I find that I think best in my home library, surrounded by books and the peaceful surroundings of my unique and idiosyncratic home camp. The same is true with great churches and temples, which invite the thoughts to soar beneath their vast domes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kyiv in Shirtsleeves

My previous trips to Ukraine have all occurred between the beginning of November and early March, so it was an amazing experience to walk around downtown Kyiv in shirtsleeves on a hot early fall Sunday afternoon. I walked through the district around St. Sophia's, visited St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, strolled down the long aisle of trees in the center of Taras Shevchenko Blvd., passed through Shevchenko Park south of the Red University, and then to Lva Tolstovo and into my old haunts from my first trip to Kyiv in 2007.
In the park there were children riding on ponies, many families picknicking on the park benches and a throng of men standing around the stone chess boards watching chess games and smoking.

I had on my suitcoat, white shirt and tie, as I was visiting several churches on this Sunday morning, including the little Mormon congregation at the Ukrainian speaking ward on Shota Rustavelli, but even though it is late September I had to remove my jacket in the warmth of the autumn sun.

It is fascinating to see a familiar place during a different season. There is a mountain near my home in Salt Lake City which I run past every day, which changes dramatically with the seasons, wearing deep green in the spring, browns and rust colors in the summer, brilliant oranges, yellows and reds in the fall, and finally brilliant white in the snows of winter. It is always the same mountain, of course, but it is endlessly fascinating to watch it change under the procession of the seasons, almost as if it were a living thing. The same is true with any special place, like Kyiv. I have barely begun to know this city, and to see it in a new season and temperature makes me see it almost as if for the first time.

This phenomenon--of getting to know something more deeply with the passage of time and with the change of fortune--is especially true of people. You may think you know people well in their youth, but your appreciation of them changes and shifts and deepens as the years pass.

My wife and I just celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary three weeks ago. We thought we knew each other then, but my love for her has ripened as the spring and summer have passed. May it be an even richer connection as autumn turns and the snows of winter fall.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Temple Mount

On this last full day of my time in Jerusalem, I was privileged to set foot upon the Temple Mount. Known in Hebrew as the Har ha-Bayit and in Arabic as al-Haram al-Qudsi ash-Sharif, this is the holiest site in Judaism, one of the three holiest sites in Islam, and one of the holiest sites in Christianity, for it was here that Jesus's teaching, ministry and last days were centered. In my faith the Temple Mount has additional significance, as my beliefs also center upon Temples and Temple worship.

According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham went up to offer Isaac, his son. Here the Israelites built a Temple under King Solomon, which stood on the site for some 400 years until its destruction by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.Two later Jewish Temples were built or expanded on the site, in 538 B.C. and again by Herod after 19 B.C.

My personal feelings on visiting this last and greatest site in the Holy City are deep and emotional. There is a power in this place unlike any other. A few impressions. First, I was amazed at the sheer size of the Temple Mount. Indeed, the area is so vast that on the outer fringes one has the sense of being in the country, among the trees and flowers on little country paths. Also, there is a profound sense of peace in the holy space, of something more powerful and more vital than anything below in the bustling and strife-filled city.

As a final act of devotion in my visit to this holy city, I took away a small white stone from the Temple Mount, near the inside of the long-sealed Golden Gate, which I will take with me back to United States.


When I knew I was coming to Israel, the two places I must see above all others were, first, the temple Mount, and second, Qumran. Today, on my final full day in Israel, I got to see both.

At Khirbet Qumran are the ruins of an ancient settlement adjacent to the hiding places of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of the sheer desert cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. The setttlement of Quran is located on a dry plateau about a mile inland. The settlement was built between 134 and 104 B.C. and was occupied continuously until its destruction by the Romans in about 68 to 70 A.D. Between 1947 and 1956 almost 1,000 ancient scrolls were discovered in caves above and near Qumran. Also, cisterns, water courses, Jewish ritual baths and cemeteries have been uncovered, together with assembly rooms, a tower and what many think was a great writing room or Scriptorium where many of the precious scrolls were written or copied.

I don't have space here to discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, but let it suffice to say that their discovery and slow translation has been the most explosive and paradigm-shifting event in Biblical scholarship of the past 1,000 years. The implications of the content of the scrolls fundamentally shifts our understanding not only of ancient Judaism, but early Christianity as well.

I was amazed by the great height of the mountains surrounding Qumran, and also by the depth of the two ravines that slope down on either side. Also I was unprepared for the massive nature both of the water system and the ritual baths in the structure. Seeing this site was a dream come true for this afficianado of history and religion.


We visited Masada today near the south end of the Dead Sea. Though I have read much of Masada in years past--most recently Stephen Dando-Collins's "Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius's Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion"--I was surprised on three fronts. First, but the amazing height of the city above the Dead Sea plain. (I include here a video of the tram ride up). This is a truly spectacular summit, and indeed almost frightening on its edge with a stiff desert wind blowing. Second, I was amazed at the sheer size of the settlement and fortifications on the summit. Third, in view of all of this the engineering and military feat of the Tenth Legion in assailing this stronghold is truly remarkable.

St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem

On this, my last full day in Jerusalem, I was finally able to go into St. Anne's Church near St. Stephen's gate. There was a mass in process, which include beautiful music. I include a sample below. Notice the dove fly, as if on cue, from the sanctuary as the video begins.

Out in the courtyard there was an amazing fenced garden, including this orange tree which reminds one of the Tree of Life.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sabbath Services at the Jerusalem Center

This morning I attended religious services at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. It was a perfect day, warm and clear. I had the chance to see the amazing grounds around the Jerusalem Center for the first time in daylight. The collection of authentic olive presses was most amazing, and the view of the Old City was nothing short of spectacular. On the plaza overlooking the Old city there are a series of four bronze historical relief maps showing the Old City at 600 B.C., at just before 70 A.D., in about 600 A.D. and then in about 1500 A.D.

The services began at 10:00 a.m. The program consisted of a Russian woman speaking, translated into English by a graduate student who is living here with his family. Max then spoke, followed by a member of the branch presidency. I was privileged to administer the sacrament, using large flat, round loaves.

Sabbath at the Hurva Synagogue and the Western Wall

Last evening at sunset Max and I visited the newly dedicated Hurva Synagogue (beit ha-Knesset ha-Hurba, which literally means "the Ruin Synagogue"). This synagogue is very ancient, having been founded in the 2nd century A.D. It has been destroyed many times since, including in 1721 after which it lay in ruins for about 150 years. This is when it became known as the Hurva or the "Ruin" Synagogue. It was rebuilt in 1864, but was again reduced to rubble by the Jordanian-controlled Arab Legion during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war of Independence. After the site came under the control of Israel in 1967, plans were laid to rebuild it according to its 1864 plan, but it took 40 years to do so. It was dedicated a few hours after I arrived in Jerusalem this week!

Visiting the Hurva Synagogue at the commencement of Shabbat on the week of its dedication was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We first went into the basement where the men were at prayers. We entered the room and moved to the back. The room was laid out in two long aisles before very ancient pillars. Before the men were slanting desks where the prayer texts could be laid out. These were readily available in bookshelves along the walls. A cantor would sing the lines, and then at intervals all of the men would sing, reading from the books. Most of the men were wearing long black coats and black broad brimmed hats. There were many small boys, wearing Kippahs. (Max and I wore the blue Kippahs I bought from Shaaban Amer).

After observing for fifteen or twenty minutes in this basement part of the Hurva, we moved outside and around the building to the main entrance. In a mighty crush of men, we moved into the main room of the Synagogue upstairs, beneath a soaring dome decorated with murals of Rachel’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Tower of David and the Western Wall. In the center of the room under a canopy with four pillars was a raised platform where the cantor stood wearing a Tallit, a long white and striped prayer shawl, with a few old grizzled men around him. The voice of the cantor was amazing—he really sounded like Pavorotti to me. The room was filled to overflowing with perhaps three to four hundred men and boys, who were sitting at the long desks or standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles and along every wall. It was a great crush of humanity. We all faced the Western Wall, which was only a few hundred meters away. (By the way, that reminds me of something our young guide said on the tour of the Western Wall Tunnels—he said that all Jews, wherever they might be in the world, pray towards the Holy Land. Those who live in the Holy Land pray towards Jerusalem. Those who live in the Jerusalem pray towards the Temple Mount. Those near the Temple Mount pray toward the Foundation Stone on the top of the Temple Mount.)

The variety of the male worshipers was amazing. Men with simple Kippahs on their heads and collared white shirts. Most men had on black jackets. Some wore the wide brimmed black hats. Others had on splendid fur hats with cylinder-like rims. Most austentacious were the men with the fur hats and long black and white pin-striped jackets with wide silk sashes at the waist. The men swayed back and forth as they sang, or bobbed their heads over their open prayer books. Their devotion and utter joy was almost palpable. Someone handed us a prayerbook and Max followed along in the Hebrew. There were small niche-like windows above man-height on the right side opening onto what was obviously an elevated plaza outside, and through these tiny windows we could see scores and scores of girls and women, all dressed finely with scarves, looking through joyfully at their fathers or lovers. It was a truly amazing sight. The devotion, the joy, the unbridled worship was enlightening. I was also struck by the order, the uniformity and by the symmetrical beauty of the worship--especially since modern Judaism essentially has no monolithic leadership, no central authority figure. Each man knew his place, and the proper way to proceed, born of centuries--no millenia--of custom and practice! This was a special, special occasion to be in this unique and sacred place—on the first Sabbath at sunset after the dedication of this edifice.

Incidentally, it was the dedication of this structure which resulted in Hamas issuing a proclamation of a “Day of Rage” on Tuesday, which shut down so much of the city. Max said that the Palestinian fear is that now that the great synagogue is completed, the next step will be a Jewish move to reoccupy the Temple Mount and build the Temple.

After spending perhaps a half an hour inside the great Synagogue, Max and I went to the Western Wall, which was a scene of utter joy in the twilight. Hundreds and hundreds of worshippers gathered, all in their Sabbath best, pressing toward the Western Wall. Max and I stood at the wall, wearing our blue Kippahs, and with hands outstretched to the Herodian stones, said our private devotions. Max and I spent perhaps an hour at the Western Wall. We also went inside the tunnels to the side fo the wall, where the exposed Herodian Stones of the Temple Mount run for many hundreds of feet beneath the living buildings of the city above. Here there were hundreds and hundreds of additional worshippers. There were many elaborate Torah cabinets with velvet covers, where various cantors sang with scores of men surrounding them. There were great libraries of books on the back shelves and in alcoves. At one point I heard exhuberant singing and the drum-like beat of hands upon wood, and wondered if some enthusiastic teenagers were singing, but it was an old Cantor, who with his head bobbing tremendously, was singing while banging his hands on the wooden rostrum, and both old men and young boys surrounding him were singing in a haunting tone a song of pure joy. Back out on the plaza before the Wall there were great rings of men, perhaps 50 to 75, dancing in great circles. In one ring I saw perhaps 20 Israeli soldiers, dressed in their battle gear with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and extra ammunition clips in their belts, linked arm in arm in the great dancing circle with men and teenagers in their hats or Kippahs. It was an unforgettable sight on this unforgettable night.

The Syriac Orthodox Church

This little Church dedicated to St. Mark is built atop one of the supposed sites of the Last Supper. In this case the “Upper Room” is down a flight of stairs under the chapel. The Syriac Orthodox Church had its founding under Peter in Antioch and has the oldest surviving liturgy of any Christian Church. Indeed, it was at Antioch that believers were first called “Christian.” See Luke 11:25 (I think—I don’t have my bible here). The liturgy is in Syriac Aramaic, which is significant because Aramaic was the common language of the entire eastern Mediterranean during the early Roman Empire, and thus would have been the language that the Lord spoke in Palestine. In the Church we were sadly too late for prayers, but we met Justine, the caretaker, who was a stout little woman of about sixty, who took us inside the chapel, unlocking the doors from a large ring of keys at her belt, and drawing back the red and gold emblazoned curtain to let us see the altar. She bade us sit on a bench while she gave us, in enthusiastic and slurring English, a history of her beloved Church. I made the faux paux of crossing my legs in the Church as we sat, which brought a stern reprimand—I now know one never crosses ones legs in an Orthodox Church, nor ever show the bottom of your shoes to a Muslim. Live and learn. Justine, among other things, told us of many miracles which have occurred in the Church in history before the altar of the Virgin Mary, off to the side, including, according to her account, an event of speaking in tongues a year ago and at about the same time an appearance of the Savior to a woman from France in the underground “Upper Room.” The event of the appearance is secondhand, as the Frenchwoman told her through translation. Her description of the event of speaking in tongues is more interesting, as she was one of the participants. She said that she speaks Syriac, Hebrew and English. One day a Russian man came into the church, who spoke only Russian. She said that she conversed with the man for over an hour “In English.” The man left, and then returned 3 months later. As they spoke upon his return she could not understand him, nor he her. He became angry and signaled for her to stop speaking and then retreated to the side altar to Mary. She said she prayed to understand why he was angry and why he would not speak to her in Engish. As she prayed a friend from Jerusalem entered who spoke both Russian and Hebrew. She had the newcomer ask the Russian man why he was angry. He told Justine, through the translator, that he couldn’t understand why she didn’t speak Russian to him as she had before. It was a very interesting account. Today, at the conclusion of our visit with Justine, before we inspected the underground “Upper Room,” (which was unremarkable, indeed had modern plastered walls) Justine sang for us the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac in the chapel, which was remarkable.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A City of Gates and Doors

I am fascinated by the gates and doors of Jerusalem--church doors, doors into walled gardens, doorways into the most humble houses and dwellings by the way, and of course the great gates of the Old City--Lion's Gate, Herod's Gate, the Damascus Gate, Jaffa Gate, Zion Gate, the Dung Gate and the Golden Gate, which has been sealed for 2,000 years.

This is a city where many doors and gates are closed and locked--locked by prejudice, by the crushing forces of empire, by suspicion, by violence. In the past few days I have had discussions with Jews, Palestinians and Christians who all feel the oppressive frustration of closed doors in this great city. Because of security threats earlier this week, there were neighborhoods of the city which were literally sealed off.

But for the accident of history, this place would be unremarkable--another Mediterranean or Levantine city which time would forget. Fortunately there are many open doors in this special place. Because of the great confluence of the forces of history upon this place, because it is a city unto which many nations merge together there must be a wise effort to keep as many doors open as possible.

None of us can open all the doors--but we can open our small doors, one by one. I saw this yesterday as we visited in the home of Hefa Khalidi. If enough small doors are opened, it may usher in a time when even the greatest gates will grind open on their rusty hinges, and perhaps we'll all see the day when even the Golden Gate is opened wide to receive a Messiah of peace.