(photo credit: AP)
It was my first Shabbat Eve in Jerusalem, and I was still adjusting to a new home, a new city and a new way of life. My Baka neighborhood seemed light years removed from the pristine but sullen California housing development I'd left behind. I sat on my small balcony with a glass of Galilee wine, weary but content, transfixed as the light faded, stars appeared and a luminous blue haze of tranquility fell across the city.
That's when I first noticed the music. All evening, it drifted from one family to another as they breathed their worship into the evening air. Intentionally or not, their voices blessed the entire neighborhood. I even understood a few words here and there: Baruch atah... melech ha'olam. I quickly learned that the music in my neighborhood wasn't just about religious observance. The next week, as I walked to the post office and market, I heard the diligent practice of piano exercises through an apartment window; through a house's open shutters came the tentative sounds and squeaks of a flute. Someone was singing here, or playing a clarinet there. Sometimes my closest neighbors added to the symphony - a young man next door has acquired a taste for black gospel music, while the genial sexagenarian downstairs is partial to Bobby Vinton and Elvis.
But the sound of music is only one vibrant sign of life on my street. Another is the children, who can be heard at most hours of the day or night - playing, laughing, wailing. There is a newborn baby somewhere nearby, whose cry brings back memories of my own sons, two and a half decades ago. While walking one afternoon, I saw a little boy of no more than five, arms wide open and kippa dangerously askew, rushing with glee to embrace his little sister. She shrieked with joy at the sight of him.
OTHER LIVELY impressions touch my senses as well. Tireless, prowling cats. Occasionally frantic dogs. Good smells of neighbors' cooking. Hammering and drilling of new construction. The trash truck. The ceaseless horns, car alarms and sirens; televisions, arguments, laughter and animated half-conversations on mobile telephones.
Lovers stroll, arm in arm, eyes only for one another. Mothers push baby carriages. Families walk to synagogue, fathers carrying little ones on their shoulders. Friends talk across fences. Phones ring, doorbells buzz, knuckles knock on doors.
Everywhere I look people of every age and appearance and attire are living life to the fullest and loving one another in the process. I cannot help but love them in return, even though we are still strangers.
BUT THERE is another reality here. I get up one morning, make my coffee and half-consciously open the newspaper. "Death to the Jews!" I read, and quickly find myself wide-awake, confronted with the visage of Iran's President Ahmadinejad.
"Wipe Israel off the map!" he has declared repeatedly since October 2005. Of course he's not the first to say it. He will not be the last. But the words now pound against me like a body blow.
"The Jews" are the people next door, the people downstairs, the people I'm meeting for lunch or dinner.
"Israel" is comprised of those who have helped me in every conceivable way to be welcome, comfortable, at ease in their country. They search for my packages at the post office, tolerate my lo tov Hebrew when I try to order lunch, and gather to pray, sing and weep at the Western Wall.
In Reading Lolita in Teheran, author Amir Nafisi describes her 1970s college days in the US when she joined other protesting students in their rebellious cries of "Death to America." Some years later, when she found herself in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, she saw with her own eyes the brutal deaths of her countrymen including at times, acquaintances and colleagues.
"Death to America" or any place else could never again be a cheap slogan for Nafisi because death had become a reality. The mullahs' insane bloodbath was splattering against the threshold of her house.
Thankfully, I have not witnessed such violence. But I have seen the scorched and shattered houses, schools and shops in Kiryat Shmona. I've seen hundreds of exploded Kassam rockets piled up behind the police station in Sderot. And I've visited with wounded soldiers at Sheba Hospital - 20-year-olds missing limbs, eyes hollow, wounded in spirit as well as body. Who in this nation has not been touched by the Holocaust, or terror, or military conflicts?
Like everyone else, I wonder if anyone beyond Israel's borders takes such threats as Ahmadinejad's seriously. Some of my friends in America and England do, but who knows about the rest of the world?
In any case I am certainly paying close attention myself. Why? Because the threats aren't just against some controversial "Zionist entity" across the ocean. And they aren't only against my wonderful new neighbors and friends. These days "Death to Israel" is, with my full consent, a threat against me, too.
The writer has authored or co-authored more than 60 books primarily in the field of ecumenical Christian non-fiction. Her work includes the award-winning Their Blood Cries Out, co-authored with Paul Marshall, and the brief primer on Muslim history and beliefs, Islam at the Crossroads.