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Mar Elias

Our group of ten liberal North American rabbis had lunch at Mar Elias Monastery. "Mar Elias" means "Holy Elijah." The beautiful stone structure was built and rebuilt several times. The last time it was rebuilt in the 12th century over the ruins of a Byzantine church. For  18 centuries it has served as a way station for pilgrims traveling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. According to the Greek Orthodox church, Elijah gave his spirit and power to John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus.

The Greek Orthodox bishop of Bethlehem, whose name was also Elias, was buried here in 1345.

The monks who live at Mar Elias cultivate grapes and olives, as they have been doing since its founding. The monastery sits on a hilltop in south Jerusalem, from which it is possible to see views of Jerusalem to the north, Bethlehem to the south, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa and the Judean desert to the east and Herodion to the southeast.

During lunch, our guide, Mohammad, shares with us the story of his family’s displacement by the Israelis. He is not eating because it is Ramadan. He calls himself a second-generation refugee. In his lifetime he has seen Jerusalem grow from 6 to 70 square kilometers. He has one daughter in Canada and one in Kuwait.  He doesn’t believe that Israel wants peace or a two state solution. “Once Rabin was killed, there has been no hope. They want to get rid of the Palestinians,” he tells us as we enjoy the humus, salad, potatoes and fish in the spacious hall. We sit around Muhammad at the vast mahogany table, straining to hear him.  We are the only visitors on this day during the invasion of Gaza -- Operation Protective Edge.

In the middle of the cavernous dining room there is a long glass case filled with souvenirs. Glancing in that direction I suddenly remember that I am supposed to be shopping for mementos from Bethlehem. Two weeks before lunching in Mar Elias, my husband, Maynard and our guide and translator Regina sat in the office of the mayor of Deveniskes, Lithuania. Maynard’s mother was born in this very town in 1900 and she left with her mother and sisters in 1909. Maynard wanted to make this trip for a long time. Now there we are with the mayor. The room is filled with flags, souvenirs and images of Jesus and Mary and the Holy family. The mayor’s office is on the town square adjacent to the cathedral. The same cathedral that Maynard’s mother had walked past as a child over a century ago.  The mayor is warm, animated and gracious to us, her “returning Jews”. We are here in a town that once had a Jewish majority. She assures us she is minding the desecrated Jewish cemetery and hopes to restore it to good condition. We don’t mention now that there are no new Jews to bury there. The mayor gives us a gift of a bottle of wine. We do not have a gift to return to her but accept it with appreciation and great shows of politeness all around.

Later in the day we stop at the home of the mayor’s assistant. She also greets us warmly, serves tea, cookies and home made cheese. Before we leave, she cuts a big brick of the same cheese and presses us to take it with us. We have no gift to return.

Hence, Regina suggests that when we are in Bethlehem (that was part of the plan before Protective Edge invaded Gaza) we pick up some Christian icons to send to the mayor and her assistant. She clearly writes their names and addresses for us to take.

Now, at Mar Elias, I hasten over to the large glass display case, leaving Muhammad in mid-narrative. Right away I see the perfect gift. It is little box with a silvery crucifix in the center surrounded by four small bottles. In one bottle is holy water, in one is earth from the holy land, in one is anointing oil and in the fourth bottle, holy frankincense. Holy, holy holy.

This is all so holy. So absurd. So confusing. Elijah, whose name in Hebrew means "Yah is my God." The defender of the faith. The pursuer and the pursued. The survivor who never dies. The harbinger of the Messiah who has come, who will come, who may never come.


The young man says that each little box costs two dollars. I think that is reasonable for so much holiness. He doesn’t take credit cards. Only cash. I have three dollar bills in my purse. He takes the three dollars and gives me two little boxes – one for the mayor and one for her assistant. 

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