Religiousness in Jerusalem

Only a week or so, maybe less, into our first stay in Jerusalem, I had a strange encounter with what it meant to keep the Sabbath here. It was Saturday afternoon, all the markets and stores that weren’t Arab were closed, the streets mostly empty, and the Jews in our hostel were about to have Shabbat dinner. One of the Jewish women sharing the girls dorm with me came into the room and stood next to the bathroom door. “Is anyone here not Jewish?” she asked. What a peculiar question, I thought, but answered, “Yes, me” anyway.


“Oh good. Could you flip the light switch for me?” came her reply.


Flip the light switch? I got up and did so, remembering that Orthodox Jews were prohibited from using any form of electricity on the Sabbath, but couldn’t help thinking it was the most hilarious favor I’d ever done for anyone.


It also seemed strange that she showed no qualms about using electricity, as long as someone else turned it on. That didn’t make sense to me, when I thought about it. I’ll get to that a bit more in a sec.


Fast forward to my third time in Jerusalem, in an MMA class I’ve been taking. (It was supposed to be a Krav Maga class, but whatever.) We were learning a punching/kicking combination from the instructor, then trying it out on the other class participates, changing partners frequently. “Switch!” the instructor yelled, except in Hebrew. I went over to a guy near me without a partner yet. (Everyone in this class is a guy.)


He said something in Hebrew I didn’t understand. He knew I didn’t understand, so with a bit of an awkward expression, he drew a circle on his head with his finger, in the place a kippah would go. “Ooh, he’s Jewish. He can’t touch girls. Right, right.” I thought. I smiled, remembered I was in Israel, and found a different partner.


Sometimes another religious Jewish guy comes to the class, but he works out in his tzitzit, a nonverbal tip-off. (I mean there are other Jewish guys in the class, but who aren’t religious, or at least not Hassidic or Orthodox.)


Israel, but Jerusalem so much in particular, presents an intricate, complex, fierce, stressful, often unwelcoming environment. No matter how much time we spend here, I don’t think I’ll ever quite figure out the dynamic. Which is all part of its draw.


My mom probably said it best: Being in Jerusalem is like being in high school again. Everyone has their own little clique and if you don’t exactly fit into their requirements, if you’re a Jew from New York, not Israel, a secular Jew, or wear a different type of clothing, etc. etc., then you’re shunned. Couple that with a feeling of superiority for being part of whichever group.



One time my mom was walking into the old city wearing shorts, but long shorts that were in no way provocative or unseemly. She’s in her 50s, ok? It’s hot here. XD An older Jewish man walking past her made it his businesses to point to her sexy knees, wag his finger and say, “Bad, bad!” Haha oh dear, such is the life in the most important, but perhaps the most religious place on Earth.




I remember truly not liking Israel the first time we came due to the snobbishness, and not changing too much on my opinion the second time either. What I did love was the seriousness and social factor, the life you see on the streets. One Israeli man said after living in the US for a while, an environment of everyone going place to place in cars, he missed all the energy and action of the city squares and main street in Jerusalem: the musicians, families with bags bursting with their haul from the shuk (market), the loud bartering for bread.


My bread place


Our American Israeli friend Daniel told us you’ll get better prices at the shuk if you dress conservatively. It just works like that here. Everyone is biased.


Mehane Yehuda Market


But I kind of like that. My favorite part of Israel was the lack of draining small talk. As soon as you met someone in the hostel, the topics presented were religion, politics, or international affairs. People had opinions. It was amazing! And you could have in-depth conversations without people turning sour. Not always, but often.




In fact, I had my first beer bought for me (20 years old, had just left the US) by a London actor who was deeply interested in having his questions about Christianity answered. He got pretty vulnerable about it and seemed sincere.


I had been reading through C.S. Lewis’s books at the time (I am not a Lewis fan anymore- long story- but I believe he had many good things to say, and made many important points of the gospel clear and concise.) So we sat around drinking beer and discussing the Moral Law. It was great. Jerusalem seems to draw people in search of something real. Yes, yes, if anything, “Israel is real!” XD XD




Which brings me to the entire point of this post. Sorry that it took me so long to get here!


As a Christian, I believe in absolute truth. If I believe it’s wrong for me to murder, then it’s wrong for you to murder too. The world was designed in a specific way, and if you do things contrary to the way God planned, then that’s how a whole lot of suffering can come about.


Even people who don’t know what God says is right or wrong can benefit by doing things His way. Does your business thrive when you work hard and meet people’s needs? Well super, God says to work hard and serve others. That’s just the way He designed it. (Of course we don’t live in a perfect world, so some “thrive” through corruption and distortion, but that’s only a paper money thriving, without any true sense of fulfillment.)


The Bible doesn’t say anything about not using electricity on the Sabbath- but if it did, then I wouldn’t invite someone else to break God’s law for my benefit. The law would be true whether the other person believed it or not.


To me that’s like saying, “Hey, it’s wrong for me to steal, but you aren’t religious, so here’s my gun, go rob that store for me, ok?”


Seems a bit illogical, don’t it?


Do you love Jesus or not? That’s the question that determines if you are a Christian or not. Nothing else. It’s not about keeping laws anymore. The law simply shows us that we aren’t perfect, and need a savior.


So most of all it saddens me, to see men and women walk around so focused on keeping laws and traditions, keeping them from missing out on the freedom and truth they are offered in the New Testament.


Paul, back in the day, wrote this to the Galatians:


“We are natural Jewish people and not sinners from the heathens, but since we know that man is not justified because of works of tradition, but only through faith in Jesus Christ, we too have believed in Jesus Christ, so that we would be made righteous in faith by Jesus and not by works of legalism.




For I died through Torah to legalistic tradition, so that I shall live for God. I have been crucified with Jesus Christ: then I no longer live, but Jesus lives in me: but although now I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, the One Who loves me and has given Himself over on my behalf. I did not cancel the grace of God: for if I am in righteousness through legalism, then Jesus died in vain.”


Galatians 2:15-16 & 19-21


We love Him because He first loved us. To love Him perfectly would be fulfillment of the whole law.




God loves and chose the Jewish people, so we love them too. Jerusalem is stuffed with history and is the most important place, even though physically it’s just a dusty rock that everyone is fighting over. So we feel awfully privileged to be here, even if showing our knees is “bad, bad!”




Keep praying for the peace of Jerusalem! 🙂



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2 thoughts on “Religiousness in Jerusalem”

  1. I find it interesting to learn about religion in other countries and Israel is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a long long time. Cheers for Sharing this Post!

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