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If you send a letter to Santa Claus, it may or may not reach the North Pole. But if you address one to God, Jesus, the Queen of Sheba or King David, chances are it will wind up in a warehouse in Jerusalem.
The world's mailmen, it seems, ascribe divine power to this city. So it's not surprising that God has his own mailbox here.
Every day, trucks deliver hundreds of sacks of letters to the Israel Postal Authority's Dead Letter Department. Manager Aviv Yaniv admits that while he doesn't have a special connection to God, he can make sure the letters get pretty close.
"People believe that Israel and Jerusalem is the holiest spot on earth," Yaniv said. "The Western Wall is the remnant of the Jewish Temple so people believe that this place is the closest place to God."
Yaniv, 66, and his assistants can read more than a dozen languages which makes it quite handy when trying to decipher the million and a half letters they receive from around the world every year. Some are addressed to Dios, Spanish for God, while others are written in Russian and Arabic. Some have even misspelled it, writing DOG instead of GOD.
The Dead Letter Department is located in a non-descript, Bolshevik-style cement-block building in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul behind a bakery. Yaniv's staff also deal with letters whose addresses are insufficient, unreadable or in languages unfamiliar to mail sorters in the originating country.
"We are able to return something between 75% to 80% of the letters we receive to their senders," Yaniv said.
Workers do their deciphering at a large table. They are the only department allowed to actually open letters and read private mail. That is for the sole purpose of finding the sender so it can be returned to them. During the period of the British Mandate, women were not allowed to work in the dead letter department since it was believed women did not know how to keep a secret.
"I know the feelings of people writing these letters," Yaniv said. "Some are anxious or depressed, or some just want something so they send what I call a checklist letter and ask for a beautiful wife, a good job, a nice car, a lot of money and a pretty house."
Some of the letters are registered, which makes it a little challenging to get someone to sign off on them. Some are sent from prisons. Sometimes large envelopes filled with letters to God are received. These are usually mailed by a teacher somewhere across the globe, perhaps in Africa, or South America, who perhaps have turned it into a writing assignment for their pupils. These are placed in special boxes labeled "Letters to God."
Among the hundreds of letters waiting to be delivered were some addressed to: "The Son of the Nun, Joshua Cult," and "Rabi Jesus, Tel Aviv," and "King Saddam Hussein, Jerusalem Palace." Some were from Israelis addressed to "My Mother," and "Mr. Bashir Assad, Damascus," and "President Ahmadinejad, Iran." These were stamped "no postal service." One Egyptian repeatedly sends letters to Moshe Dayan, the iconic former general and minister who died 28 years ago.
Yaniv said that since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have noticed a dramatic increase in letters to God from Russia and other former Soviet countries, a sign of the new religious freedom in their societies.
So what happens to these letters of various faiths addressed to God, Jesus and other mystical characters like King David or The Mother Mary? Twice a year they are brought to Jerusalem's Old City where the chief rabbi of the Western Wall receives them. They are removed from their envelopes, folded and workers add them to the thousands of messages that are stuffed into the divine cracks between the wall's massive stones.
"This is a service we do as a gesture to people out of a sense that we want to help folks," Yaniv said.
Quite a few of the letters contain money or items the Postal Authority says it tries to return.
"We get a lot of cash," Yaniv said. "And I want to tell you we are experts at finding the person who sent it, even if they're under the earth, and return the money to them."
Yaniv says he's just an ordinary postman - with an extraordinary route.
"First of all it's my job," Yaniv said. "But secondly, there are folks who write out of deep sorrow and pour out their heart in the letters so if I can help the letter wind up in a place they think it was meant to reach, then that makes me feel good."