Sufi spirituality transcends religious borders in the Holy Land

JERUSALEM — Wearing a full and graying beard, khaki trousers and a woolen vest, 66-year-old Ya’cub ibn Yusuf puttered around his little shop. Sufi-inspired sounds played by an Israeli musician piped from the speakers above. “Spiritual Books for Sale,” read the sign outside the door.

A middle-aged Orthodox woman wearing a colorful headscarf milled about the shelves of books on Sufism, Kabbalah and other mystic traditions. “This is one of my best customers,” Yusuf said.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “But if my rabbi found out I came here, he’d have a heart attack.”

Yusuf doesn’t have the same worry. His rabbi at the alternative synagogue he attends knows that Yusuf runs the Olam Qatan bookstore in the old Ottoman train station in Jerusalem. Yusuf is an observant Jew, but he also considers himself a Sufi. “He is everyone’s favorite Jewish Sufi,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a prominent Jewish advocacy organization based in Jerusalem.

To be clear, Sufism is an ancient Islamic mystic tradition that emphasizes the reduction of ego and the purification of the heart as paths to meeting God. There is a significant interest in Sufism among Israelis today, but its popularity among Palestinian Muslims has declined. Much of the interest in Sufism is among Israeli Jews. Later this month, (April 19 to 21), some 1,000 Israelis are expected to gather in the Negev Desert for the seventh Sufi festival. A promotional piece in advertises “a space where music, dance and silence become a language.” Yusuf will be at the festival selling books and CDs. He will also give talks on the famous Sufi scholar Rumi and on the essence of Sufism.

(Godland News / Fergus Tuohy)

Yusuf believes that Sufism is popular with Israelis because it provides a bridge between East and West, between the secular and the religious. Many young Israelis go to India after completing mandatory military service and become more interested in spirituality. As Sufism is based in monotheism, it is more familiar than other Eastern traditions, he said.

Yusuf, who is originally from Brooklyn, first encountered Sufism while living in San Francisco in the 1970s. While others there seemed most interested in the spiritual music and poetry associated with the tradition, Yusuf began to pursue Sufism in earnest. He studied under a Jerusalem-based Muslim Sufi master for seven years. During that time, he struggled with whether or not to convert to Islam, but ultimately decided to remain a Jew. His master gave him the name Yacub. The name is appropriate, Yusuf says, as Jacob was the “God-wrestler.”

But Yusuf said he expects few, if any, Muslim Sufis will attend the April festival. “It will be mostly secular Israelis,” he said. “Too many half-naked women there dancing for the Arabs.”

Some Arab Sufis come to the festival as well. Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, a Muslim Sufi originally from Nazareth, taught classes at the festival in the past. He spoke well of the event, but said because it is mostly secular, he no longer attends. Manasra, who referred to Yusuf as “one of my best friends,” is an ordained Sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order in the Holy Land. He leads conferences, workshops, meetings and instructional webinars for hundreds of Sufis in the Holy Land and around the world. Among his students, he counts not only Muslims, but also Jews, Christians and Baha'is.

“Sufi is not a religion, it is a style of religious life,” Manasra said. “When I say Sufi, I mean spiritual.”

Manasra noted that Jews embracing Sufism is not a new phenomenon. He pointed to the son of Moses Maimonides, the prominent twelfth century Jewish philosopher and scholar. Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon succeeded his father as the head of the Egyptian Jewish community and embraced Sufi practices. “He was a Sufi,” Manasra said. “They were great Sufis.”

Manasra doesn’t try to convert his students. “They need to be Jews,” he said. “We have enough Muslims in the world. We need them to be great Jewish Sufis.”

As for Muslims, Manasra estimates before the 1948 war, most Palestinian Muslims were Sufis. But these numbers have diminished significantly. Today, Palestinian Muslims are largely Sunni. Manasra pointed to poverty and radicals as reasons for the decline in the spiritual practice. “When you are free, you can do many great things,” he said. “The fear of the occupation and the radicals on both sides can create a feeling and bad behavior and bad thinking. They cannot relax and cannot see the window of the horizon.”

Manasra no longer lives in Israel. He said that he had to flee the country because of pressure from Muslim radicals opposed to his devotion to interfaith work. They were beating up his son on a daily basis, Yusuf said. Manasra now lives in Florida, but serves as co-coordinator with Abrahamic Reunion, an interfaith organization which works for peace in the Holy Land.

Yusuf believes Sufism has gone underground among Palestinian Muslims. “I think the fanatics have really had an impact,” he said. “For Israeli Sufis like me, it’s not a problem. I’m part of a free pluralistic society, thank God. Also, I’m not a convert.”

As published in The Media Project.

Stories and a stroll with the Khair family

BEIT SAHOUR — On Wednesday evening, Raja Khair ran up the steps in Bethlehem’s old city to greet the men of our group. Raja is sturdy and has strong hands, thickened by decades of working as a builder. Colin, Matt and Fergus crouched in Raja’s little sedan. Professor Goldman, Dan, Kanishk and Patrick hopped in a cab Raja whistled over for them. Then it was a 10-minute drive to his home in the town of Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem. The house was made of thick bricks of the white local limestone ubiquitous in this part of the country. We walked up steps of polished limestone, a stately bannister along one side. Raja built the house for his family over the last 20 years. A second and third floor were completed just last year and provide six extra beds, two bathrooms and a small kitchen for the guests they house year-round.

His wife, Rima, came out and asked if we wanted to eat first or go to our rooms. “Eat first!” we said in unison. She smiled and took us inside where we met two of her three daughters, Amira and Amani, and her son, Joseph. They warmly ushered us over to the dining room table where, much to our surprise, we found a family of four visiting from Dallas. (The Khairs supplement their income by serving meals in their home and, in our case, renting out rooms for the night.) The Dallas family quickly departed and then we were left to enjoy a delicious meal of chicken, rice, eggplant, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and yogurt. Rima sat with us, a large rosary hanging on the wall behind her, and told us about her life.

Her parents and grandparents fled to Bethlehem from Jaffa during the 1948 War. Raja’s family is from Beit Sahour, which is 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim. Palestinians of these two faiths get along well in Beit Sahour, she explained. They attend each other’s major religious celebrations and lifecycle events. But they almost never intermarry. On the rare occasion it happens, it brings great shame on the families. “To be a Christian in Bethlehem, it’s ok,” she said. “In Nablus and Jenin, it’s more difficult.”

Amani studied public health and nutrition at Al-Quds University, but she couldn’t find a job in her field, so she now works as a teacher. Amira is studying pharmacy but is not sanguine about finding employment in that field. “There are no options for a job,” Rima said. “Eighty percent [of graduates] work somewhere other than their studies.” The job market in Israel is much stronger, but Palestinians need permits and additional exams to qualify.

Rima commutes 40 minutes each day to Hebron, where she teaches Arabic, math and science to second and third graders. There are no official checkpoints on her route to work now, but there were in 2002 when violence erupted and she was forced to stay in Hebron a week at a time. Her mother-in-law cared for the children while she was away and Raja was at work.

Raja goes up to Jerusalem six days a week to his job doing construction work at the White Sisters Convent guesthouse. He has to secure a permit, which is good for six months. But he also has to cross a checkpoint each way, so what would otherwise be a 15-minute commute takes about two hours. He leaves around 5:00 a.m. each morning to make sure he is in time for work at 7:30 a.m. When he had trouble with his permit, he was out of work for a month.

“Each year it’s worse,” Rima said of the Palestinian situation. When she was a child, her father used to drive the family from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, or to the beach. But once Israel built the separation wall more than a decade ago, travel has become too difficult. Palestinians are not allowed to take their own cars into Jerusalem and must either take a bus or walk. “I feel like [when] I’m going, something will kill me,” she said. “I prefer not to go.”

Water paucity was another issue Rima raised. Most homes keep tanks on their roofs because availability is intermittent. “Palestine is surrounded by water, but we are short of water!” she exclaimed.

But this is the only life her children have known. Her two oldest daughters went abroad to be exchange student at a Lutheran school in Germany. Amani called home and expressed amazement that she didn’t need to carry her ID with her. She felt free and happy there, Rima said. “She [didn’t] want to come back.”

Like many Palestinians with resources, some in her family have made the choice to leave. Rima has two brothers who left Palestine because the local university was shut down. They went to England to study and now live in Dublin. Each year they tell her they will return, but they still have not.

But Rima cannot imagine living anywhere else. “I never feel lonely here,” she said. It’s because she is surrounded by family. The Khairs have around 500 family members in Beit Sahour, including 16 nieces and nephews on their street. Her family and the family of her husband are especially intertwined. Rima and her sister married two brothers.

The value of family has been proven to her many times. In 2000, Raja contracted meningitis and nearly died. The family had just taken a mortgage to build their home, and Rima was scared they’d be ruined. But an uncle came in and helped them financially until Raja recovered. “When he was sick, I found everyone beside me,” she said.

For two weeks, Raja was in a coma and was not expected to live. Every day Rima went to pray at the nearby holy site, Virgin Mary’s Well, which is believed to be where the Holy Family stopped on its way to Egypt. On Aug. 28, an auspicious day for that holy site, Rima said, Raja woke up from his coma. Every year since, the extended family gathers to celebrate his recovery. A special dish called drisha, made of beef, wheat and tomatoes, is cooked over an open fire, and the party usually lasts two or three days, Amani told us.

After our supper, the family invited us to join a few dozen neighbors for one of their regular evening walks around Beit Sahour. The hilly eight-kilometer trek took us past Virgin Mary’s Well and the Shepherds’ Field holy sites.

When we returned, we were quite exhausted. Rima made us refreshing tea with lemon, and we listened to Raja play his tabla drum. Soon after, Goldman was ready to return to the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem, which sits near the border wall. Because of that proximity, Raja asked Rima to join them; he was nervous being a solitary man driving near the wall, and felt it safer to be in the car with a woman. Dan also went along so Raja could practice his English. After dropping off Goldman, on the way back to Beit Sahour, Rima showed Dan her childhood home. It sits just next to a side entrance to the Church of the Nativity, the second-oldest church in the world, built on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth.

Entering the Holy Land through the back door

TEL AVIV — The African migrants of this Israeli city have recently been in the news, but they are not that visible to most tourists. The migrants live in the poorer, out-of-the-way precincts of Tel Aviv, near the Central Bus Station, far from the luxury hotels that line the Mediterranean beaches.

But since we have come not as tourists but as journalists, the migrants and their churches were our first stop after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Professor Yarden told us that we were deliberately entering the country “through the back door.”

And so, we found ourselves at the Grace Covenant Gospel Church with a preacher from Ghana, Pastor Solomon, who ministers to the migrants. His is one of more than a dozen churches in the area around the bus station. Pastor Solomon has a kind face, bright eyes and hair that’s just beginning to gray.

Many of these migrants – from such places as Ivory Coast, Cameroon, South Africa, Congo and Ghana – have endured extreme hardships along the way and are at high risk for homelessness and drug addiction. “Sometimes you walk around and you see people just going crazy,” Solomon said, as he extended his hand towards the window behind us. “For them, this is the end of their rope.”

So Solomon offers three months of temporary shelter at the church, which occupies the fifth floor of a run-down tenement building in one of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods. “Our purpose is to give them hope,” he told us. “They are very injured when they get here.” His church also provides free food on Saturdays. Many of the African migrants living in the Middle East are men who’ve left their families in their home countries. So the church becomes their family.

“This is the only country in the Middle East where we can freely express our religion,” he said.

But not all are in the country legally and sometimes parishioners get arrested and deported. Whenever Solomon hears of an arrest, the congregation bands together to raise funds to hire a lawyer. But sometimes it is too late and the parishioner has already been deported.

African migrants have been coming to Israel in large number since the 1990s. After the government recently moved to expel many of them, there have been protests by both the migrants and their Israeli supporters against such deportations. One of us asked Solomon if his group ever participated in these. “We try to stay away from politics,” he said. “We are only here to serve the Lord.”

Solomon’s church was our third stop after the bus picked us up from Ben Gurion Airport this morning. After meeting Professor Goldman and Yarden, we went to Levinsky Park, which is a central meeting area for many of the African asylum seekers now in Israel. There we met Lisa Richlen, a Ph.D. student who briefed us on the history and statistics of migrants and asylum seekers in the country. She pointed out there is a high rate of drug use and prostitution in south Tel Aviv, where many of the most marginalized communities reside. “Natali Kingdom of Pork” declared the sign on a restaurant opposite the park. In a country made up of mostly Jews and Muslims, the sign proclaimed the unique nature of this district.

But pork wasn’t on the menu for us today. And rather than falafel or pita for lunch, we enjoyed the traditional African food of that district. We were greeted warmly inside by several African men who brought out platters of injera bread, beef, fried whole fish, beans, rice and okra. The proprietors were Jacob, a Muslim man from Darfour, and Sbhat, a younger Christian man from Eritrea. When we inquired about their interfaith business venture, both men laughed joyfully. “Jacob, he is like my father!” Sbhat said.

The delicious food on top of the jet lag made weary travelers of us all. We boarded the bus to what Goldman called “the front door of Israel,” the beachfront area of luxury hotels, embassies and art galleries. When we got back to the hotel, many of us strolled down to the beach to watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean. Then we had a relaxed dinner and were joined by Covering Religion alumna Yardena Schwartz, CJS ’11.

On our first day in Israel, we barely met any Israelis or Jews or Arabs or Muslims. We followed one of the biggest news stories coming out of Israel by spending the day with African migrants. We’ve got the rest of the week to explore the others.

Photos from day 1: