Meeting with Holocaust survivors — in living rooms

Holocaust survivor Eliezer Rozenman speaks to a class of middle school students in Tel Aviv April 15, the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. The students met with Rozenman in the living room of a classmate, as part of the Zikaronbasalon (Memories at Home) project, which “offers the possibility to listen, think, talk, feel, and connect with the memories of survivors, as well as to ponder the challenges facing (students) today.” (CNS/Mary Knight)

Holocaust survivor Eliezer Rozenman speaks to a class of middle school students in Tel Aviv April 15, the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. The students met with Rozenman in the living room of a classmate, as part of the Zikaronbasalon (Memories at Home) project, which “offers the possibility to listen, think, talk, feel, and connect with the memories of survivors, as well as to ponder the challenges facing (students) today.” (CNS/Mary Knight)

By Mary Knight

TEL AVIV — A variation on the serious theme of Holocaust testimony has brought survivors and young Israeli students together in living rooms to celebrate life while remembering atrocities.

Coordinated by Zikaronbasalon, Memories at Home, hundreds of small groups gathered in their living rooms to have meaningful and vibrant conversations on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 15.

The average age of Holocaust survivors living in Israel is 83, and approximately 40 survivors die each day, according to a report just released by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.

The soon-to-be absence of survivors, due to mortality rates, prompted founders Adi Altschuler and her husband Nadav Embon to reflect on the future and relevance of traditional Holocaust commemorations. Wanting to shape a social gathering around living memories, they began a discussion in their own living room, inviting friends and survivor Hannah Bergman. They didn’t know who would show, but in the end, so many friends came that they spilled out onto the balcony. Someone played music, others brought beer and bourekas (savory pastries), and all discussed life-after-pogrom.

On this year’s Hashoah, some 3,000 alternative Holocaust commemorations took place in Israel, among them, Zikaronbasalon. The get-togethers for students are organized into parts — the story of the Holocaust victim, songs and diversions, conversation and questions.

The gathering I attended was in the home of a therapist who has a seventh grader. Approximately 25 schoolchildren joined in, as lively and noisy as 12-year-olds can be. They listened to survivor Eli Rozenman, 73, who was 2 when his mother fled Poland during World War II and remained on the run throughout the forests of southeast Poland, finally settling in Armenia. He joked with the students, read some of his poems, asked for their impressions and showed them the only possession from his former life — a baby spoon.

At the end of the evening, he signed autographs and said he felt like a rock star.

Mary Knight, a former CNS staffer, now lives in Tel Aviv.

Petra: Of ancient history and context

The largest and most impressive of all the ruins in Petra, a funeral chamber known popularly known as "The Treasury." (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The largest and most impressive of all the ruins in Petra, a funeral chamber known popularly known as “The Treasury.” (CNS/Mark Pattison)

By Mark Pattison

PETRA, Jordan –- Imagine going to your parish’s mission to hear a guest preacher speak, but your parish is in the Holy Land.

That’s what it’s like when you tour an archaeological find like Petra – which was only reintroduced to Christians from the West about 200 years ago — and you have a tour guide who is a font of knowledge about the Bible and the ancient history of the region.

So it is with Ra-Ed Haddad, who has been guiding this Jordan Tourism Board-sponsored tour for religious media writers and bloggers. Any tour guide worth his salt –- and we’ll get to the salt part later -– will have his or her facts straight, although they may get jumbled in the mind of the listener. But the bonus comes from providing context. It’s like putting shredded coconut on top of the cake frosting.

A sandstone carving of the Nabatean goddess  in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A sandstone carving of the Nabatean goddess in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

So, did the inhabitants of Petra in Jesus’ time just “give up” Petra to the Romans? Yes, but also no. The Bedouins, a nomadic people who still traverse the Jordanian countryside today, were realizing less and less income from Petra. So while there wasn’t a battle or a formal surrender, it was more of an abandonment, Haddad said, and the far richer Roman Empire could do with it what it wanted. The Romans ultimately restored the Silk Road, which ran partly through Jordan.

Just as most world religions have something analogous to what Christians recognize today as baptism, Haddad says, so, too, do most world religions have a great degree of discomfort with recognizing the pagan element in their worship. Think of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments only to find the Israelites worshiping a golden calf.

Such was also the case with the different groups who had control of Petra over the years.

Take the case of a sandstone carving of a woman in which all is obliterated except for her legs. The Nabateans likely made the carving, but some other civilization — the Romans, perhaps? — pulverized the image to such an extent you can’t even tell what she might have been the goddess of. Haddad pointed out several tributes to Dusharrah, the Nabatean god of wine, but few remain intact to this day, due to both the ravages of man and the ravages of time.

With so many vendors hawking camel rides in and around Petra, one could commandeer a fleet of Magi along the way. But even this is an occasion for a bit of catechesis from Haddad — a refresher lesson of sorts from earlier in the tour. Myrrh, for instance, one of the three gifts the Magi bore to the Christ child, was known for its medicinal purposes, particularly as an anesthetic. (Dentists of the time, working with crude instruments, used myrrh as a painkiller for their patients.) And, as Haddad sees it, it was not vinegar that was on the soaked sponge held up by a Roman soldier for Jesus to drink while on the cross, but myrrh.

“It was an act of mercy” by the soldier, he said, “to put this man out of his misery. But Jesus refused it; “he wanted to feel the pain to the last,” Haddad added.

Let’s get back to that salt. The biblical account holds that Lot’s wife was instructed by God, like the rest of Lot’s family, to not look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, which were being consumed by fire. But she looked back anyway and turned into a pillar of salt.

Haddad explains that pillars were regarded as phallic symbols in those days. Some people placed their hands on pillars; for some it was OK to do, for others it was definitely not OK.

But did Lot’s wife actually turn into a pillar of salt? People may never know, Haddad suggested. “The concept is, don’t look back and be a prisoner of your past,” he said. “The longer you carry a grudge in your heart, the heavier it gets.”

– – –

I will blog from time to time about things I’ve encountered on my Jordan journey. Also, look me up on Twitter at @MeMarkPattison for Jordan-related tweets. Others on this tour will use the same Hashtags: #holyjordan.

A man playing the one-stringed rababa for tips in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A man playing the one-stringed rababa for tips in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

In midst of refugee hardship, there is kindness and laughter

Editor’s Note: The author is international editor at Catholic News Service and is on a reporting trip to the Middle East sponsored by Catholic Relief Services.

AMMAN, Jordan – The stories sound so much alike one might think they were rehearsed, except for the pain in the refugees’ eyes.

Syrian refugee children attend church-backed preschool program in Jordan. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Syrian refugee children attend church-backed preschool program in Jordan. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

The Iraqis left Mosul and surrounding villages with only the clothes on their back after receiving ultimatums from Islamic State fighters. Eventually, they all camped out in Irbil, Iraq, before making their way to Jordan.

The Syrians never ever dreamed they would be forced to leave their homes. Many were taken by bus to the border of Jordan and had to cross over at night.

After editing story after story from the Middle East, there is something very humbling about looking into a person’s eyes and seeing pain and despair. It is touching to see how families have tried to make a home, squeezed into small spaces separated by curtains and wood, sharing two toilets, a urinal and a church hall with 38 other people.

Catholic Relief Services brought me to visit the refugees as a 2014 Egan Fellow. It’s a quick trip, with long days and lots of direct contact with people who tell similar stories.

Yet in the midst of tales of hardship are people with hope and kindness. Syrian Muslim women in northern Jordan expressed thanks for a church-supported school program. Their children performed for visitors, as seen in the video below. (Disclaimer: Cell phone videos in low light and shot by jetlagged journalists are not up to normal Catholic News Service standards.)

One Syrian couple invited us into their apartment even though the man’s sister-in-law had died that morning.

Teens from Mosul, Iraq,  pose for a selfie in Amman, Jordan, (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Teens from Mosul, Iraq, pose for a selfie in Amman, Jordan, (CNS/Barb Fraze)

And, in moments with laughter, Iraqi teens posed for selfies with journalists.

Throughout the last two days, families repeatedly asked if we could help them get resettled. One man even presented me with a list of the names and ages of his family members.

It’s heartbreaking to tell them that all I can do is tell their stories. So in the next few weeks, I will try to do just that for them.

From Gaza, pain and weariness in the voice of a pastor

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — I have not been able to reach Father Jorge Hernandez, the Argentine priest of Gaza’s Holy Family Parish, for some days now. In the morning yesterday I spoke with one of the Sisters of Mercy who have moved in with the priest together with the severally disabled children they look after. She told me they were fine, caring for the children and since it is the sisters’ policy not to give interviews to the press, she suggested I try to call Father Hernandez in the afternoon for more details about their situation.

Father Jorge Hernandez, a member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, celebrates Mass at the Gaza parish in 2011.  (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Father Jorge Hernandez, a member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, celebrates Mass at the Gaza parish in 2011. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

But when my call went through to his cell phone today — a phone call into the heart of war — I could hear the deep pain and weariness in his voice, something I had not heard in our previous conversations at the start of the fighting.

This afternoon, following the worst of the fighting in Gaza, Father Hernandez was apologetic to me. He could not answer my call, he said. There had been bombings near the parish church, he said, and he needed to attend to the people.

Hopes for a calm Eid al-Fitr holiday July 28 were shattered in the afternoon by heavy Israeli shelling that left 30 people dead, including 10 people — eight of whom were children from the Abu Shafaka and al-Mukdad families — in a park in the Al-Shati refugee camp and others at the Shifa Hospital.

The Israel Defense Forces denied responsibility for the attacks on the park and hospital, blaming them on misfired missiles from the Islamic Jihad, a claim Palestinians deny.

That same evening a number of armed Palestinians infiltrated into Israel through one of the tunnels the IDF says has been the target of their mission to destroy and a firefight ensued, killing one of the gunmen and wounding several of the soldiers. Israeli residents of the nearby communities were told to remain home and roads closed as soldiers searched the area to make sure no armed gunman remained in Israeli territory. A barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas into Israel reached all the way up the coast to the northern city of Haifa.

The more personal side of a patriarch

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered first among equals of all Orthodox patriarchs, arrived in the Holy Land May 23. As he was waiting for his historic visit with Pope Francis, the patriarch visited Bethlehem, West Bank, and led a service at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Several U.S. Catholic journalists traveling with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism got a more personal glimpse of the patriarch, as described by John Feister, editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stops to bless a baby as he leaves his hotel for his May 25 meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem. (CNS/Julie Holthaus/The Leaven)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stops to bless a baby as he leaves his hotel for his May 25 meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem. (CNS/Julie Holthaus/The Leaven)

“One of the interesting moments yesterday happened in the hotel lobby before the Holy Sepulcher meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew,” he wrote.

“We were waiting for our journalist group to assemble and couldn’t help but notice a small group of Eastern Orthodox clergy, along with some camera-laden laypeople. A videographer was waiting, camera in hand, on a nearby chair, not far from the elevators. Something was about to happen.

“The folks with the cameras were American visitors; the priests were part of Patriarch Bartholomew’s party. The elevator doors opened, Patriarch Bartholomew emerged and headed for his waiting caravan, along with American Archbishop Demetrios.

“As Patriarch Bartholomew was whisked through the lobby, he spotted a mother, with two babies in a stroller, coming in the doorway. He split with his group, went over to talk with the mother, and blessed her babies. Then he raced off for the event with Pope Francis. He would drive a few blocks from the hotel to the Sepulcher; the Holy Father was on his way from Tel Aviv by helicopter.

“I ran into the woman a few moments later. ‘What a thrill!’ she exclaimed she headed down the hallway.”

Heads up: Don’t read this blog if you’re hungry

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When Casa Nova head Chef Elias Akroush, 33, learned that Pope Francis would be lunching with five Palestinian families at the pilgrim guesthouse where he directs the kitchen, he knew he would turn to his best friend, pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, to help him with the dessert.

Both men are Catholic, and while this is the first time Akroush will serve a pope, Kortiatis also prepared a desert for St. John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The two friends started working together May 24 to prepare the meal that will feed 70 people and fit the customary request of the pope: that the food be simple and representative of the local cuisine.

Akroush said he wanted to make a special meal for “the best pope,” with fresh local produce highlighting the areas’ herbs and cheeses.

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

The two men finalized the menu two weeks ago: a first course of cracked wheat patties stuffed with cheese and herbs, a farmer’s salad of tomatoes, onions, the traditional za’atar herb spice blend, olive oil, and figs stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, almonds and walnuts. A date sauce will be served on the side.

The second course will consist of penne pasta with a tomato sauce as per the pope’s request, then Akroush will serve the Argentine pope a beef fillet with grilled vegetables and herbs and a baked potato.

“This is all that we farm in Palestine,” he said. “I am not afraid of serving him meat. I know he is very humble.”

Dessert will be homemade baklava rolls prepared by Korfiatis with crisp filo dough stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon, rosewater, sugar and honey, then soaked in a special syrup of water, honey and lemon. On the side there will be three different flavors of his friend’s homemade Italian gelato ice creams: chocolate, pure milk, and a special pistachio flavor Akroush developed with a master ice cream maker from Italy.

“For me it is a big honor to make the dessert plate for Pope Francis,” Korfiatis said. “It is a very unique day for a cook, and it is a very unique person visiting us.”

Korfiatis said he hoped he would have the chance to shake the pontiff’s hand.

Akroush said he was not nervous preparing the meal. The only difficulty, he said, was having to keep things simple.

“Everything is under control. Though it will be difficult, it will be done with love and pleasure. It is a way for the pope to know how much we care for him and how much we love him,” said Akroush.

Survey: Christians would leave Holy Land’s cities

By Judith Sudilovsky

BEIT JALLA, West Bank — Nearly two-thirds of Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem said in a survey that they would emigrate if given a chance, Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella found.

Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said he was shocked that 62 percent of Christians indicated they would like to leave.

A similar survey in 2007 reported that only 26 percent of respondents said they wanted to exit the area.

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Respondents cited a lack of employment as the primary reason for wanting to leave. Christians also identified the region’s difficult political situation, steep economic challenges, restrictions under Israel laws, measures that affect opportunities for a normal life, lack of quality education and lack of housing as other factors involved in their desire to leave, according to the survey.

“One problem Christian Palestinians always come back to is the absence of a political solution. It is clear the overwhelming majority of Christian Palestinians think the lack of advancement is a problem,” said Sabella, who presented the results at a press conference on May 16 in Beit Jalla.

He noted that as a community Christian Palestinians are committed to their faith and see it as part of their identity; 46 percent regularly attend Sunday Mass.

“Sunday Mass is a major event for most Christian families. It helps their identity and recreates the traditions of faith we have inherited from our forefathers,” he said.

Regarding the pope’s May 24-26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land May, 48 percent said they expected the pope’s visit to lead to improvement in interfaith relations with an additional 26 percent hoping it would lead to unity across denominations and Christian churches. At the same time, 47 percent do not expect the visit to have any influence on the region’s political situation.

Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, said there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem prior to Israel’s independence in 1948. The number has fallen to 8,000 today.

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