It’s a big deal when major concert tours come to Israel. Flights are expensive and there are hardly enough fans to fill one performance. Madonna’s show two weeks ago is still hot conversation. Madonna, an ardent student of Jewish mysticism Kabbalah, has visited Israel before to study and travel but this was her first concert in the country. One of my Hebrew teachers who attended the performance described the memorable performance to us in class.
“This is the spiritual center of the world,” my teacher said, quoting the pop diva.
And here I am in Jerusalem, the center of the country Madonna calls the spiritual center of the world.
On Sunday morning I took advantage of the two hours a week that the Dome of the Rock complex is open for non-Muslim visitors. I rode a cab with three other Hebrew University students down to the Dung Gate, one of the seven entrances to the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The Dung Gate is the entrance closest to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Jews around the world face this lone remaining wall from the Second Temple.
Immediately over the wall, in the Muslim quarter, is the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. Jews call this site the Temple Mount, as it was the site of the two Jewish temples that were destroyed over two millennia ago. The Temple Mount is an important site to all Abrahamic religions, as it is believed to be the site of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham. This site is also holy to Muslims as it is believed to be the site where Muhammad ascended to heaven on his hajj to Mecca.
The Golden Dome of the Rock is possibly the most famous symbol of Jerusalem. Its gleaming crown is a staple in depictions of the city. In all of my trips to Israel, I had never made it there until Sunday. One of the other students I was exploring with had taken it upon himself to be our walking-Frommers, spouting off the important history to know about each of the antique sites on the complex. Most memorable was an open-air domed building that covered a mosaic that was considered to be the center of the world.
So I guess Madonna was not the first person to call Israel the center of the world. Back when people thought the world was flat, Israel was indeed at the center of the three known continents — Asia, Europe and Africa — and Jerusalem is at its geographic center.
But the spiritual capital of the world? Jerusalem is most certainly the most religious city I have ever seen. Believers from around the world migrate like pilgrims to this key location in the history of monotheism. However, I believe there is a difference between religion and spirituality.
Walking around many of the orthodox and ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem I feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and certainly not spiritual. Residents of these neighbors are generally hostile towards outsiders who do not abide by the same stern adherence to the biblical and rabbinic writ as they do.
In my opinion, religion is a means to create joy and elevate quality of life. I believe this to be a common thread between all world religions. The fact that I feel uncomfortable and unwanted walking through several neighborhoods in Jerusalem that members of my own religion occupy certainly makes me question this city’s so-called status as the most spiritual.
Last night at a street fair on Emek Refaim Street, a trendy strip of bars and restaurants in downtown Jerusalem, I attended a New Year’s festival with a bunch of friends from Hebrew University. Along the sidewalks artists displayed their work, vendors sold corn on the cob and crepes and costumed street performers ate fire and fought with knives. About every block had a different stage set up with a different local band performing.
My friends and I were struck more by the audience than the musicians themselves. Although I’m no expert, I’d say the music was mediocre at best. But the fans were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Groups of hippies in tie-dye and dreadlocks danced with old women with tinted hair and thick glasses. Young and old waved their hands above their heads and jumped on and off the ground as if it were on fire. My friends and I were cautious and eager to join in the revelry, unsure that we had the ability to be quite so carefree in us.
Once I started dancing I knew I had figured out what Madonna was talking about. As I linked arms with strangers in celebration and joy I felt an unfamiliar sense of belonging. I was in an unknown state of harmony with strangers. A state where self-consciousness does not exist and mundane complications could not compete. And quite possibly, I was at the spiritual center of the world.