A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land: How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli

A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land: How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli

by Jackie Feldman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253021373
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/10/2016
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jackie Feldman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is author of Above the Death Pits, Beneath the Flag: Youth Voyages to Poland and the Performance of Israeli National Identity. He has been a licensed tour guide in Jerusalem for over three decades.

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A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land

How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli

By Jackie Feldman

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Jackie Feldman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02148-9



It's almost 6 o'clock and still over 90 degrees outside. I'm guiding a British charismatic ministry through the sites of Jesus's ministry around the Sea of Galilee. The packed tour bus jiggles and bounces over the patched road on its way back to the hotel. I take the microphone and turn to the group: "Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any questions, about anything whatsoever that I might have explained today, please feel free to ask."

A middle-aged Salvation Army guy with an Irish brogue pipes up: "Why don't you Jews accept Jesus Christ as your true Lord and Savior?" I launch into a five-minute explanation on conflicting messianic expectations, varying interpretations of Isaiah, the plurality of Jewish sects in Jesus's day, and how the contingencies of history formed deniers and followers of Jesus into Jews and Christians. After five minutes, I put down the microphone. Dead silence. Fifty-five people crammed into the bus and not a sound but the drone of the motor.

A sweet woman in the fifth row tries to help out. "I once heard the Chief Rabbi of England say that when the Jews' messiah arrives, he wouldn't at all be surprised if indeed he were Jesus." Well, I guessed at what the Chief Rabbi might have meant. And I knew that none of the group would understand it that way. For them, the Chief Rabbi had admitted that "the Jews got it wrong first time, but they'll do better next time around." In most circumstances, I would have put down the microphone and continued to the hotel in silence. I don't have to answer. But this time, I am tired. Very tired. So I take the mike and say, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, the Chief Rabbi of England is right. I wouldn't at all be surprised. But you would!" The group's pastor grabs the mike and harrumphs, "Well, let's all look at tomorrow's program."

At age 22, I, a once-Orthodox Jew from New York City, came on aliya to Israel to study Jewish philosophy and see if I could make my future in a Jewish homeland far away from the Jewish home I grew up in. Three years later, I had become a licensed tour guide, working for Palestinian tour agents specializing in Christian tours to the Holy Land. For reasons I only gradually learned to understand, I had chosen to make my living as a rebbe far di goyim, a rabbi for the Gentiles, presenting and representing Israel, Judaism, and Christianity to a variety of Christian groups from Northern Europe and the United States. I encountered people I probably would never have met otherwise and played a variety of roles, which I came to see as dynamic performances not only for pilgrims but for myself as well. By presenting the land, Judaism, sacred texts, and myself to Christians, I came to appreciate and interrogate my own relations to Judaism, Israeli belonging, voyages of memory, Israeli-Palestinian politics, and religious truths in new ways.

When I first arrived in Israel, guiding seemed a natural choice. My chances of financial survival as an MA student of Jewish philosophy were slim. The tour guide course offered a chance to learn the lay of the land, spend time with Israelis, connect my Jewish textbook knowledge with the realia of mountains, streams, and buried stones – and have fun doing it. Tour guiding offered (or so I thought) a flexible schedule that would enable me to earn a decent living without disrupting my studies. I loved to travel and spoke several European languages, and I enjoyed telling jokes and being on stage. I knew Jewish history and the Bible, had studied Second Temple Jewish thought, and had taken courses in early Christianity and New Testament Greek. I even kind of liked Jesus, especially when he acted like an apikores, a heretic in face of authority. I found some of the moralizing and coming-of-the-kingdom apocalypticism a bit heavy, but in his encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus told them what I'd have liked to say to my high school rabbis but didn't dare. After all, straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24) was a common pastime of quite a few of them. And anyone who overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple couldn't be bad.

So, after finishing the tour guide course, leading lethargic Jewish teenagers on long hikes in the summer heat, and presenting my face and business card to an endless array of Israeli and Palestinian travel agents ("We'll call if we need you"), I was offered a real job working for a Palestinian tour company, guiding British Protestants, and later German Catholics, Dutch Reformed, and American Evangelicals. Why Palestinians? Because they offered me work. Why Christians? Probably because I feared that working with Jewish visitors, most of them American, might remind me too much of where I came from. The enclave diaspora mentality that I'd come to Israel to escape might provoke allergies. Also, I thought I knew enough about Jews and wanted to meet someone else. As for nonreligious visitors, many are "post-tourists" who delight in rapid shifts from cynical distance to serious contemplation to hedonistic enjoyment. They enjoy the play of surfaces and the inauthenticity of tourist attractions as a mark of their own connoisseurship and "coolness." Pilgrims, on the other hand, often come in search of a "hotter" authenticity, a more profound sense of self. They want to learn and experience rather than merely relax and be entertained. As a student and sometimes practitioner of religion, I thought they'd be more interested – and more interesting.

Guiding pilgrims also meshed with my own religious search: I had come to Israel out of a strong sense of Jewish commitment, mixed with a deep dissatisfaction with the Orthodox Jewish milieu I was raised in. I was convinced that the rabbis who had educated me had hidden something from me. There must have been more to Judaism than what they fed me in Washington Heights: obedience to the Law, obsession with halakhic detail, preparation for upward mobility, and defense of the borders of the enclave against the ogres of anti-Semitism and assimilation. I registered for a masters' degree in Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, hoping to study the history of heresy. I sought fellow travelers. I began reading Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament in Aramaic and Koiné Greek. I sought an ur-period of unity, before exile and defensiveness, before the Talmudic hair-splitting and the bourgeois conformity my New York rabbis worshipped.

When I began guiding, I was working on a thesis on Second Temple pilgrimage. On opening the authoritative work at the time, Shmuel Safrai's Pilgrimage to the Second Temple, I was dismayed to find the long first chapter devoted to "the commandment of pilgrimage." Impossible, I thought. Are my rabbis here too? Did Jewish pilgrims 2,000 years ago carry miniature law books in their pockets and call their rabbis to ask, "am I or am I not required to go to Jerusalem this year?" What interested me was the pilgrims' experience. What did pilgrimage provide them that made them undergo sacrifice and hardship to come to Zion? In Victor and Edith Turner's writing, I found, not the concern with following the rules, but the transformative search for liminality, for a break from structure and transformation through sensory experience. I sought evidence of this experience in the texts of Josephus, the Apocrypha, Philo, and the Mishnah. And I imagined I would find it among the Christian pilgrims I guided. They too might be fellow travelers.

Working with British Protestants (both Church of England and "non-conformist") was indeed a learning experience. In time, I would learn to decipher their cultural codes: distasteful food was "interesting," a breathtaking sight was "lovely, isn't it?," and complaints were to be addressed by letter to the travel agent two weeks following return home. More challenging were the religious encounters. Pilgrims' attitudes to Judaism and Israel were shaped not so much by contemporary Israeli-Palestinian politics as by Christian theological views on Judaism that were incorporated into Western cultural understandings – even if pilgrims were not aware of them. While many interactions were determined by the institutional framework of the guided tour, the structure was flexible enough to allow guides like me to relate a variety of narratives and present myself in several different roles.

Performing Jewishness for Christian Pilgrims

The groups I was assigned to guide came, for the most part, on 8–15-day tours, along with their pastor or priest. Whereas in other institutionalized group excursions, "the principal expectation of mass tourists from Professional Guides is that they provide information and interpretation," in pilgrim groups, the pastoral leader often plays a major interpretative role through his readings and sermons. The knowledge pilgrims request most is knowledge that augments their faith experience. The "head" of the leader and guide is valued as a tool for reaching the "heart."

The groups' itineraries focused on sites of significance to Christian faith and history, and were frequently advertised as "a walk in the footsteps of Jesus." They regularly conducted Christian worship, read Bible passages, and sang hymns in the course of their visit. The pilgrims inhabit an environmental bubble, which intensifies interaction within the group while protecting the group from most direct contact with the surrounding environment. Thus, the tour guide (and sometimes, the driver) is often the only local person they converse with in the course of their visit.

Besides being a "native," as a Jew, I was marked by pilgrims in certain emotionally charged ways. Jews were seen as people of the Book, as bearers of the longest memory and as older natives of the land, who possess geographical and scriptural knowledge. They became witnesses and authenticators of Christian sites and truths, often in spite of themselves. Whatever Christian pilgrims' views of Israel and Jews, they are rarely indifferent.

As is frequently the case in intercultural encounters in commodified tourism, the visitors' images of the country and its inhabitants, which are at variance with the daily realities on the ground, often create pressure on the part of "native" guides and service workers to comply with touristic images. Thus, both the structure of the roles on the guided tour and the spiritually charged nature of biblical knowledge may place the Jewish guide in the position of mediator between Christian pilgrims and their sacra – the Bible, Jesus, and the holy places. I should add that in this encounter, not only are these sacra charged with a history of painful (Christian-Jewish) power relations, but some of those sacred symbols are shared by Jews and Christians, who interpret them in very different but partially overlapping ways.

Many guides deal with these sources of tension (which they discover only gradually, usually by trial and error) by employing subtle strategies to distinguish between themselves and the spiritual leader and mark role distance without offending the pilgrims on whom they rely for their livelihood. I chose another path.

On my very first job guiding a Christian group headed by a booming-voiced evangelist from Cornwall, we approached the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes. At the time, the area around the perimeter of the church had been excavated, and workmen were injecting concrete around the foundations to protect the church from structural damage caused by settling.

"Why are they doing that?" inquired Pastor Don.

I answered, "To prevent the floor from cracking. You see, the church is built on sand."

"Oho!" he exclaimed. "There's my next sermon!"

From my successful initiation into guiding Christian groups, I deduced that the planting of emotionally resonant and frequently multivocal symbols was often more important than the train of historical causation or the details of specific cultural meanings. Even Scripture has a wide penumbra that may include commentaries, expositions, and even other texts intoned to sound like Scripture. The evocation of resonant symbols and key words was frequently commended by the group's pastor and applauded by the group members. Yet my playful attempts at seduction were sometimes misunderstood as the profession of a shared faith or as the first step toward a relationship of commitment and conversion. This issue became most acute in my work with Evangelical or Fundamentalist Protestant groups. For many, the world was divided into Christians and heathens, and perhaps also biblical Hebrews who haven't yet seen the light. What's more, many came from "seeker churches," whose membership included many who had grown up in a variety of other denominations or even religions. For them, I was often a prime target for conversion. My "strategy of seduction" complicated matters, insofar as I spoke sympathetically of Jesus, recited by heart passages of the New Testament, or neglected to add the distancing phrase "according to tradition" before each mention of, say, Jesus's miracles at a particular site. After all, I thought, Jesus was Jewish, and my job was to bring the Bible to life throughout the land – not to expound my personal religious or political views – right?

Repeatedly, I found my position misconstrued. Even if I took care to stand to the side during their prayers and not speak of Jesus as "messiah," "our Lord," or "savior," groups would ask, "So when did you discover Jesus?" Theological explanations on Jewish messianic beliefs rarely made a difference; the same questions and testifying would continue. To borrow Evangelical terminology, for them, if I wasn't born again yet, by talking the talk, I had demonstrated that I had "come under conviction."

Next, I tried ritual. On the day of our visits to the Western Wall, I packed my tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) in my backpack. When we arrived at the plaza in front of the wall, I wrapped myself in the tallit, recited the blessings in Hebrew, wound the tefillin around my arm, and translated the accompanying prayer text to them. As the group photographed me, while looking at the similarly attired worshippers at the wall, I sensed the coin dropping. "Ah, he's not one of us." Even for Evangelicals, ritual did the trick; it marked the border. Afterwards, they would ask me, "So what do you Jews think of Jesus?" That was an improvement.

After a year or so of these tallit and tefillin performances at the Western Wall, I reconsidered. At age 16, my father gave me hell for not putting on tefillin for prayer each morning. "Your father put on tefillin, your grandfather wore tefillin! Your cousins all wear tefillin! Only you – no. No-good family!" I refused to wear the phylacteries to please my father. Was I now going to put them on for show to please the goyim?

The religious context of the performance (at the Western Wall, at prayer time, like that done by the worshippers at the wall) left little room for role distance. Was I not then saying – to them and ultimately to myself – that this is what real Jews do? How then would I explain, if asked, why I did not put on tefillin every day without appearing totally irreligious and irreverent?

This interaction was a precarious tango with religious symbols across religious lines. The ritual worked in defining an effective border between myself-as-Jew and them-as-Christians because the context was perceived as religious and worthy of respect, especially since the prayer text I recited over the tallit and translated for them referred to verses that are part of the Christian Bible as well. Because donning the tallit and tefillin and reciting the prayer could be seen as an act of commitment (which, in certain ways, it was), they might then expect me to behave as Orthodox do in order to be authentically Jewish in their eyes.

Thus, the tourist/pilgrim gaze on the religious symbols changes their nature for myself as performer as well. As the group's gaze moves from the leather straps on my arm to those worn by the Hasidim praying closer to the wall, what do they see? Do they reclassify me as an outsider? Have the Hasidim now become less strange? Or, perhaps, do the onlookers come to appreciate that their Jesus wore straps much like these, and was, in fact, far more Jewish than they had imagined previously? As in the case of many natives' representations of their culture to outsiders, the tourists'/pilgrims' interpretation of symbols can never be fully controlled by the performers.

In retrospect, I wonder, why didn't I take the safer path of role distance and separation, letting the pastor do the "religious stuff"? First, because it's less fun. If I'm on stage, why not get a good role? I saw my challenge as not just providing information but as crafting an itinerary partly determined by geography and economics into the path of the pilgrims' progress. In this project, I was aided by many pastors, especially Evangelical ones. Catholic pilgrimages during Holy Week are structured around liturgy so that following the events of the Passion may become a leitmotif for the entire journey. Thus, the "native" liturgy of the group performs the work of structuring time and space, syncopating the rhythm of pilgrimage. For most Protestants, whose pilgrimages are less in tune with calendrical cycles of ritual, the pastor may employ ritual and sermons to structure time and tune expectations. As one pastor I worked with summed up his sermon at the Sea of Galilee:

We haven't come here to take pictures, though we will take pictures. We haven't come here to be world travelers, though you are all now world travelers. We haven't come here to be educated, though we've all learned much. We've come to seek our God and dedicate ourselves to Him. ... The purpose of this trip is not travel, education and enjoyment, but to have ourselves drawn nearer to our Creator. ... So, when you come back, you can tell your friends that the plane ride was terrible. Or you can tell them how the spirit of God touched you.


Excerpted from A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land by Jackie Feldman. Copyright © 2016 Jackie Feldman. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. How Guiding Christians Made Me Israeli
2. Guided Holy Land Pilgrimage—Sharing the Road
3. Opening Their Eyes: Performance of a Shared Protestant-Israeli Bible Land
4. Christianizing the Conflict: Bethlehem and the Separation Wall
5. The Goods of Pilgrimage: Tips, Souvenirs, and the Moralities of Exchange
6. The Seductions of Guiding Christians
7. Conclusions: Pilgrimage, Performance, and the Suspension of Disbelief

What People are Saying About This

President Emeritus and Dean of the Graduate School, Pacific Rim Christian University, Honolulu, Hawa - Dr. Randall Y. Furushima

To read Jackie Feldman’s engaging, insightful, and provocative words is like being on a pilgrimage from the inside out. The underlying meaning, logic, and power of symbols and language, experienced among people from different cultural and religious roots and sensibilities, negotiated through shared time and place are all unveiled here in a personal and profound fashion. He confirms in this book what I’ve always suspected in the twenty-five years I’ve known him — that he is a mature and brilliant interpreter of social constructions and realities around us all. And in this sense, there is a deep universal appeal and thread. I continue to learn from him, and this work has me yearning to travel with him once again.

Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Ben Gurion University of the Negev - Alex Weingrod

Jackie Feldman's new book is intensely personal, often wry and comic, and beautifully conceived. Based upon his adventures as an Israeli tour guide, his rich ethnography is wonderfully complex: hired by a Palestinian tour agency to guide Christian pilgrims, Feldman shows how the guide-pilgrim encounter constructs "Bibleland" for the pilgrims while also transforming his own Jewish-Israeli identity and sense of belonging. Not only a notable contribution to the anthropology of tourism, the book wisely interrogates the anthropologists' claims of reflexivity and the linkages between texts and their politically contested contexts. Well written and cogent throughout, this book is a fine achievement.

author of Emerging Evangelicals - James Bielo

Incredibly readable, accessible to a variety of undergraduates yet smart and provocative enough to appeal to graduate students and scholars. . . . [C]onstructs a multivocal account, moving among guides, pastor pilgrims, lay pilgrims, and others in the social space of the tourist-pilgrim encounter.

author of Contemporary Tourism: Diversity and Change - Erik Cohen

Exceptionally perceptive and insightful . . . . Feldman believes that the Holy Land, despite different readings of the symbols inscribed on its landscape, provides a common ground on which Jewish guides and Christian pilgrims could meet. The book’s message is one of Jewish-Christian mutual understanding, if not of total reconciliation of their divergent interpretations of that landscape.

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