We call her Caroline. She is more like us than we would like to admit.
She’s the red stray cat that we have half heartedly adopted. Even though people tell us red cats are mostly male, we are convinced Caroline is a she. And even though we know we are not the only one for her, we love her as if she’s faithful to only us.
We feed her daily, but will not allow her in our house. We have made a warm bed for her in the back yard that she never uses. We scare away other cats that have started spraying our back yard with breath taking enthusiasm. We worry when we haven’t seen her in two days. We are contemplating on bringing her to the vet because she recently started limping.
We can not take her home. My husband is allergic, getting her a pet passport would take months if not a year. And who says she will be happy with us, far away from her relatives, in our cold and rainy little country?
Caroline belongs to our family more than she will know though. When we arrived in Jerusalem, we still felt closest to the Christian heritage of our European background. I believe Jesus Christ has lived here. Regardless of whether he was the Messiah or just a very charismatic Jewish man. I believe the man that continues to inspire millions has travelled through the same hills as I travel through now.
But not long in to our journey, it started to feel as if Christianity was wrong here. It seems to be the religion that resembles the little boy in the back of the classroom. The one with the glasses and slur, the one that tried not to be too obviously present, or else the big boys will beat him up.
Of course, secretly, this little fella is taking good care of himself and getting stronger every day.
If you look closely enough, you see it happening. There is a large Franciscan Monastery just inside the Old City walls. It just so happens to be right next to the Notre Dame Center, a huge and beautiful Hotel with several restaurants and auditoria. Then guess who are the neighbors? Opus Dei has a stunning house that is being renovated right next door. While just a little step away, the Salesian sisters have their pre-school for Arabic children. On and on it goes, albeit in a modest, delicate, quiet manner. Behind walls and closed fences. Sometimes under the yellow white Vatican flag that vanishes against the Jerusalem stone.
Out in the open both Judaism and Islam are very present everywhere.
In the streets. In the never ending tension between people passing eachother. Both with head scarves. God fearing, but both fearing the other religion more.
In our ears when Muslims are called for prayer with loud and ever present Adhan, or when the siren indicates the beginning and end of Shabbat.
In our hearts when we meet up with Sara and her family, or when we think about the people we met on the West Bank that invited us to their house and in to their families.
Today was the perfect example of how all three religions brush against us like Caroline when she wants to be fed. The children and I walked to the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem. It is a wonderful place where it’s easy to see Biblical stories come alive. My oldest son needed a present for a friend, I needed some hard to find Christmas decorations. The little gift shop seemed like the perfect place to spend some money.
A trip to any shop with five children in tow is a reason to become religious and pray for sanity. With our return to the Netherlands in mind I decided to cut us all some slack and allow the kids to pick a souvenir.
Heavy with Bibles, build-your-own-Arc’s and cute little nativities made in Bethlehem, we left the shop and headed back home. Even through the rain, our little bunch of blond kids attracted the never ending kind attraction of the locals. Older Arab men, young families and elegantly veiled women would smile or stroke our daughters hairs.
The border between East and West Jerusalem, between the Arab side and the Jewish side, is where we cross the street to go home. Waiting for the traffic lights to turn green we were standing behind a tall man. He looked old fashionedly British, with his folded umbrella by his side, his bowler hat and his long black coat. Were it not for his side curls, neatly folded behind his ears, we would have mistaken him for a tourist.
He turned around and looked at us: “you live here?”, he asked.
I nodded, careful not to look him in the eye too long. He pointed behind me, to the neighborhood we just came from. And continued: “because then you know, it’s dangerous there”.
The lights turned green and he walked away from us, obviously happy he had done his mitzvah to help a stranger. The children didn’t notice, but I felt a little bedazzled.
When we arrived back home Caroline was waiting for us. And the similarity was obvious. Like her, we are astray. She might be apparently genderless, we are nationless. Without a firm faith we feel friendship with everyone, regardless of religion. But like her, we can never let our guard down. For, like the man in the street told us today, enemies are suspected everywhere by the same people we befriend.
Like Caroline, we know where to get what, and how to behave where. We tell our children to say Shalom on this side of the street, and Salam on the other side. We love when people love us, and hide when the going gets tough. With our Christian heritage Israel seems like a perfectly legitimate place to grow a stronger faith. Yet we have lost more than we found. And like Caroline, we then find treasures in unexpected places.
We never really belong, nor fit in completely.
Like Caroline, we enjoy it while it lasts.