Essay: A love story for Jews and Christians

There is a mystery about who falls in love with Israel.

temple mount 224.88 (photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
temple mount 224.88
(photo credit: Areil Jerozolimski [file])
Recently, I spent two weeks at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Besides being an all-around Israeli in residence on the campus, I gave a series of three lectures on the great Iberian Hebrew poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi. In the first of these lectures, I sketched the story of Halevi's life, and of his legendary death at the gates of Jerusalem, by means of some poems of his that I had translated. One of these was his well-known Tsiyon halo tish'ali lishlom asirayich: Zion! Do you wonder how and where your captives Are now, and if they think of you, the far-flocked remnants? From north and south, east, west, and all directions, Near and far, they send their greetings, As I send mine, captured by my longings To weep like Hermon's dew upon your mountains. Halfway through this poem, which is a long one, I glanced at the audience and saw, sitting in the front row, a pretty, redheaded woman with tears running down her cheeks. I knew who she was, because she and her husband had been introduced to me at a reception the night before, at which I was struck by their warmth and aliveness. Their names were Carrie and Mark Burns, and they were evangelical Christians who ran a local radio station that broadcast to listeners in the area. Well, people don't usually cry at my lectures, not even if there's poetry in them. Yet at the lecture's end, before I could ask Carrie Burns what had happened, she was gone. The next morning I received an e-mail from her that went: Do you think that it is fair To catch this soul so unaware? How, sir, could I have known This Spaniard's life would touch me so? His Zion words, they are mine own, Heart of my heart. No, bone of my bone. SIMPLE THOUGH they might have seemed, these were a very intelligent six lines, for they mimicked almost perfectly certain aspects of Yehuda Halevi's style, or at least of his style in my translation. And they were followed, in English letters, by the Hebrew words Mikol halev - "from all my heart." I believed that. I believed it even more several days later, after my wife and I were driven by the Burnses to their country home, on the outside of which hung two large flags, one American and one Israeli. They had asked to interview me for their radio station, as part of an unrehearsed husband-and-wife talk show that they broadcast every morning. In the course of this interview, Carrie, who had read Zion, Do You Wonder to her listeners the day before, asked me to read aloud another poem of Yehuda Halevi's. One written upon the death of a daughter, after which she shut her eyes and said a spontaneous prayer in Jesus' name for all those who had lost a child of their own. It could have been cornball, but it wasn't. It was quite simply, once again, mikol halev. I could go off at this point on a discussion of evangelicals, Jews and Israel, which is something I have written about in the past in these pages and will no doubt write about again. But Carrie and Mark Burns, while their feelings are shared by many Christians like them, were not only clearly exceptional in the intensity of them (they have between them led over 15 evangelical study groups to Israel), they were also the first evangelicals I had ever sat down and talked with, and I wouldn't be so foolish as to try to generalize on the basis of such a one-time encounter. (Nor did they encourage me to. "Don't think there aren't plenty of wackos out there," Mark Burns said to me when I asked him if he and his wife were typical.) The point I'd like to make, rather, is this: There is a mystery about who falls in love with Israel and who doesn't that involves Christians as well as Jews, and that has no entirely rational explanation that I can think of. I've seen it happen over and over. Someone visits Israel who I have every reason to think will be deeply moved by the experience. He or she has the religious education, the historical knowledge, the family background, the sensitivities that should make them highly responsive - and they're left cold. They come, they tour, they take in the sights, and they have a better or a worse time, but the core of them is untouched. They have been to a foreign country called Israel just as they have been to foreign countries called Sweden and Spain, and there's not much more than that to say about it. BUT I'VE seen the opposite happen more than once, too. Someone arrives in Israel who has no ostensible reason at all to be excited by it - and is. I've seen lives changed this way. I once knew an American (he did not happen to be Jewish) who was passing through Israel, about which he knew nothing and in which he intended to stay for only a few days on his way to India - and who never left. Does this happen to some people with other countries too? I suppose it must, but I suspect that it happens with Israel more. (Of course, there are those who hate Israel at first sight also, which is probably part of the same phenomenon.) The mystery is why it does. What is it about this land, or about us who live in it? What is it about those who come and never leave, or who leave part of their hearts behind them when they do leave? None of the obvious reasons that can be given seem able to account for it. It's true that evangelicals like the Burnses come to Israel for the first time with all the religious and emotional baggage needed for a positive reaction to the country their savior lived in. But plenty of other evangelicals, though they may be appreciative of what they see, are not moved to the depths in the same way. Neither, needless to say, are plenty of Jews. I don't wish to wax mystical about it. I don't know if my and Carrie and Mark Burns's souls have to have some profound commonality just because we feel the same way about the same country. Maybe there are other things at work, too. But I do feel, without wishing in the slightest to minimize the difference between being a Christian and being a Jew, that they are, in their love for Israel, part of my family. Perhaps I've written all this just to tell them that.