When someone writes to Santa Claus, he knows to address it to the North Pole. But where should he mail a letter to God?
A few days ago an AP news photo featured a plain white box labeled, “Letters to God.” A rabbi was taking them out one by one and placing them into the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The unopened letters joined the other messages, prayers and communications crammed into the interstices between Wall’s stones by visitors great and small — from children who have just learned to write to one from Pope John Paul II himself. When the Israel postal service sorters come upon a letter addressed to the Almighty, they direct it to a special pile for delivery at the Wall in Jerusalem.
Paradoxically, if Israel is the focus of so much of the world’s controversy and bloodshed, it is also perceived as the one place where God might very well pay a visit, if not actually stop by to spend a temperate winter.
As the Holy Land marks Christmas and Chanukah, which coincide on this year’s calendar, controversy continues about the role of organized religion there. One example is the lawsuit filed in the High Court of Justice, arguing not only that a Reform rabbi should be entitled to a state salary as a religious representative, but that the position can go to a female, Detroit-born Rabbi Miri Gold. Both progressive movements and women in the rabbinate are anathemas to Israel’s traditional Orthodox establishment, fighting to continue its monopoly on state-supported religious bodies in the country.
But if religious organizations are squabbling, examples of spirituality abound.
International Migrant’s Day was marked on Dec. 17 by hundreds flocking to Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque to show support for the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Israel. Physicians for Human Rights, Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Amnesty International organized the happening to celebrate the contribution of foreign workers, so often at the bottom of society’s totem pole. One event, the Israeli film with the sadly cynical name “What a Wonderful Place,” portrayed the humanism of Thai and Filipino laborers and caretakers and exposed the plight of Eastern European women smuggled from Egypt to be trafficked as sex slaves in Israel.
At the nearby Tel Aviv Museum, the theme of sacrifice in the Holy Land predominated the exhibit of veteran Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, whose art has become preoccupied to the point of obsession with the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac — Abraham raising his knife about to obey God’s command to slaughter his son like a sacrificial sheep. Kadishman’s hundreds of paintings of sheep heads symbolize the sad list of victims in the Promised Land.
But there are also seasonally appropriate stories of hope. The first to attest to one is Yehudit Nussbaum, who has just received a kidney transplant from a complete stranger. Suffering severe kidney disease, Nussbaum could not tolerate dialysis, and began searching the Internet for a possible organ donor. The American-born Israeli contacted everyone she knew, including the American Jewish Christian brotherhood group in which she was active. Meanwhile, Martin Fila of Australia was on the Internet doing the same search in reverse — he was looking for someone to whom he could give a kidney. Fila, 35, belongs to a Christian group that believes in breaking down the walls between people by donating kidneys to save strangers’ lives. He traveled to Israel accompanied by a friend who donated his kidney last year, one of 15 transplanted so far from among the group in recipients around the world.
After the successful transplant earlier this month, Nussbaum made a tearful radio appearance calling Fila and his friends “the miracle of my life” and vowing to help others in their search for donors. Meanwhile the recuperating Fila acknowledged that his gesture might seem naive in today’s cynical society, but that “the world is a better place when we give to one another.”
While the temperatures in the northern hemisphere dip into the single digits, winter flowers are just starting to bloom in Israel — petunias, phlox, snapdragons and birds of paradise.
So as Santa bundles up in his frozen arctic home, the much luckier God may be sitting incognito beneath a cypress tree on a sunny Jerusalem corner reading his mail — and watching to see if this year humankind is finally getting some sense into its head.
Helen Schary Motro is author of “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005)