At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land

by Yossi Klein Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi's first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, a remarkable coming-of-age story, was lauded by the New York Times as being "of burning importance ... a drama central to the very soul of Jewish life." Now, in At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Haleví describes his unprecedented and extraordinary spiritual journey to


Yossi Klein Halevi's first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, a remarkable coming-of-age story, was lauded by the New York Times as being "of burning importance ... a drama central to the very soul of Jewish life." Now, in At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, Haleví describes his unprecedented and extraordinary spiritual journey to discover, as a religious Israeli Jew, a common spiritual language with his Christian and Muslim neighbors in the Holy Land.

While religion has fueled the violent conflict plaguing the Middle East, Halevi wondered whether it could be a source of unity as well. To find the answer, he began a two-year exploration of the devotional life of Christianity and Islam. He followed their holiday cycles, befriended Christian monastics and Islamic mystics, and joined them in prayer in monasteries and mosques — searching for wisdom and holiness in places that are usually off-limits to outsiders of other faiths.

In this gripping work, Halevi candidly reveals how he fought to resolve his own fears and anger as a Jew and came to relate to Christians and Muslims as fellow spiritual seekers. He chronicles the difficulty of overcoming obstacles — theological, political, historical, and psychological — that separate believers of the three monotheistic faiths. And he introduces a dynamic range of fascinating individuals attempting to reconcile the dichotomous heart of this sacred place — a struggle central to Israel, but which resonates for us all.

Written in lyrical prose, Halevi takes his search for God into the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict. He insists on a spirituality that isn't escapist but instead confronts the wounds of history. The result is a book startlingly original and bold, one that embraces and transcends the categories of politics and faith.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The political landscape of the Middle East has inspired many books, but few have focused on the intersection of its religious paths as healing territory. This is where Jerusalemite Halevi, a transplanted American Jewish journalist, breaks ground. To become more at home in Israel, a land that 800,000 Muslims and 200,000 Christians call home, and to seek out an alternative to the Oslo peace process, Halevi visited monasteries and mosques, Sufi sheiks, humble monks and silent nuns. In the two years of his interfaith spiritual journey, he confronted history, theology, politics, psychological taboos and concerns over personal safety, learning much concerning the two faiths he previously knew little about. His search for holiness brings him to "conflicting versions of truth," but he attempts nonetheless to experience unity through prayer and meditation: he surrenders to a whirling Sufi zikr, debates with Armenian priests, spends Holy Week with the Ethiopian Orthodox and explores the depths of silence with cloistered nuns. To visit a sheik in Gaza, he ventures to the same spot he had patrolled and where he was wounded as a soldier. Despite his successes, relating to Christianity and Islam "as spiritual paths rather than as devouring forces that had tried to displace the Jews proved even more difficult than I'd imagined." Halevi's forthright prose, which evokes the immediacy of his encounters, does not try to gloss over his religious and political resentments, yet exudes a yearning for commonality and love. Since he sought out the "best representatives" of each religion, isolated examples who do not speak for the majority of their co-religionists, Halevi's effort remains an experiment in "testingthe border crossing between faiths." Despite the current outbreak of violence, he concludes, religion must be an integral part of the process if peace is to come to the Middle East. Readers of all religions will appreciate the honesty of this spiritual walkabout. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Israel has special meaning not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, often people of each of the three faiths know little about the others and do not make much effort to learn. Halevi has given a great deal of time, effort, and spiritual energy to understanding his Christian and Muslim neighbors. A writer for the Jerusalem Post as well as several major American newspapers and the author of Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Halevi takes a very personal approach to his journey of religious discovery. Since he comes from an Orthodox Jewish tradition, upon which he has superimposed mystic Kabalistic concepts, we are introduced to the mystic Christian and Muslim clerics from whom he wishes to learn. On a journey that takes him to the West Bank, Gaza, a cloister in Jerusalem, and a Christian settlement near the Sea of Galilee, he learns that most people seek God and peace in similar ways. Through his dialogs with the religious leaders he interviews, we come to understand the wish of most people of faith to bring unity to a land and people torn by discord. This thought-provoking book is recommended for larger religion collections. Olga B. Wise, Compaq Computer Corp., Austin, TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I lived on the border of Jerusalem. My apartment was in the last row of buildings just before the desert hills of the West Bank. In the distance lay the quiescent Dead Sea, in summer only a blurred extension of an indecisive sky, but emerging in the winter light as a distinct patch of blue, transforming the desert into an extended shore.

Between my porch and the sea, a handful of Arab villages were scattered through the hills. The tallest structures in every village were spare white minarets, bridges of longing from the desert toward heaven. The three monotheistic peoples all loved this land for the same reason: This was the place where heaven and earth mingled. The Divine Presence descending on the Temple Mount, Muhammad ascending from the Temple Mount, Jesus transcending death at nearby Golgotha -- for me, those weren't competing claims but mutual reinforcements of the same insight. Islam and Christianity strengthened my Jewish faith in the holiness of this land, and I was grateful for living at this fitful place where God had repeatedly tried to contact humanity and would, perhaps, try again.

When I first moved to the edge of the desert in 1986, I would awaken at dawn to pray. I sat cross-legged on a rug, covered my head in a prayer shawl, and wound the tefillin strap around my arm, trying to bind myself to God's will. As I began the prayers thanking God for invigorating the weary and straightening the bent -- avoiding the unbearably archaic prayers thanking God for not making me a gentile or a woman -- the call of the muezzin would rise from the minaret in the village of Anata just across from my porch.Though amplified, it was a soft, melodic voice, gently nudging the faithful awake. And though the muezzin certainly didn't intend to include me among the faithful, his call couldn't be confined to his hill alone, and it urged me not to squander this moment of intimacy with God. I didn't understand the words of his chant, but I came to know its melody so well that, even if I tried to sleep in, it would penetrate my dreams and stir me.

Through the day I tried to note the muezzin's periodic call, cutting through the cacophony of daily life to affirm a purposeful creation. Each new call seemed to grow less melodic and more emphatic, a spare voice from the desert urgently intruding on my city obtuseness: "Brother! Have you forgotten God so quickly? At any moment this dream can end!" Responding to his call, I would suspend activity and try to evoke God's presence, closing my eyes and visualizing the four Hebrew letters of His name imprinted on my forehead until they throbbed. Even without his consent, the muezzin became my partner in prayer.

For me, connecting to the muezzin was an expression of becoming an oleh, literally an "ascender," an immigrant to the Land of Israel. At those moments when my devotion merged with the muezzin's, I knew that I, an exile by way of New York and Hungary and places beyond that I couldn't even name, was a returning son, and that this landscape of prayer recognized me and welcomed me home.

Those were the only moments of intimacy I experienced with my Arab neighbors. The Jews of my neighborhood, French Hill, and the Arabs of nearby Anata and Isawiyah never visited each other's homes. We lived in estranged cultures with conflicting histories and saw each other's daily lives as a threat to our very existence. When we built new houses, our Palestinian neighbors feared us as usurpers intent on expelling them. When groups of white-kerchiefed women from Isawiyah strolled through French Hill and teenage Arab boys gathered in our parks, we wondered whether they were demonstratively staking a future claim.

Our only common language was devotion. Real peace, I felt, depended on reconciliation among the region's believers, however improbable that might be; religion, after all, was the Middle East's language of extremism. Despite the peace process, the Arab world still didn't respect the legitimacy of the Jewish return, while Israel hadn't learned to respect the culture of the Middle East. Both insults, it seemed to me, could be eased by an encounter between Judaism and Islam. I fantasized about entering a mosque and joining the prayer line in prostration to the one God, that confession of ultimate human helplessness. But mosques were off-limits to non-Muslims during prayer time, so I had to settle for my illicit dialogue of prayer.

For many of my neighbors, the muezzin was relegated to background noise, an unpleasant reminder that we lived in the Middle East, with its frightening passions and implacable feuds. Once, while walking along the French Hill promenade overlooking Anata, I overheard an Israeli woman, probably an academic, explain to a foreign visitor that the minaret on the next hill was obviously a phallic symbol. In her easy dismissal of centuries of Islamic devotion, I felt my own faith being mocked. I belonged to that woman's world of democratic values and voted for secular parties because I opposed theocracy and saw Israel's role as protecting the Holy Land from fundamentalist madness. Yet at that moment, I felt more connected to the muezzin than to my fellow Israeli. In her spiritual ignorance, she was condemning herself to foreignness, exile in the Middle East. Ultimately, it was not our Jewishness but our intransigent Westernness that would prevent our acceptance by the Arab world. I wanted a Jewish state that was politically Western but culturally hybrid, nurtured by both West and East. I feared a Jewish version of Iran, but I also feared for an Israel that would become like Tel Aviv, the secular city on the sands, without roots, facing the sea with longing.

The Intifada began in late 1987. On the opposite hill...

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden. Copyright � by Yossi Halevi. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is a regular commentator on Middle Eastern and religious affairs for the Los Angeles Times and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. The documentary film Kaddish, which focuses on his relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, was named by the Village Voice as one of the ten best films of 1985.

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