the sound of occupation

Every morning I was in East Jerusalem last week, I woke up, brushed my teeth, and then took a cushion and a blanket out to the balcony for half an hour of meditation. I recently entered the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training (JMMTT), and I’ve been especially focused on my practice since our week-long silent retreat a few weeks ago. One morning I opened my iPhone meditation app, Insight, and the subtitle for the first time caught my eye: “Peace in Our Timer.”

I first missed the pun and read it as “Peace in Our Time,” but what strikes me as the naïveté of it stands, especially in this place. When I applied for JMMTT, I think I wrote in my application about how I thought mindfulness could lead to change in the world. But right now, to me, “peace in our time” seems very far off. After I finished meditating, I checked one of the features of the application, which allows me to see who else is practicing “with” me at the same time. A blank screen appeared: “There is no one else meditating nearby.” So much for mindfulness.

As I’ve meditated in the mornings, I’ve been concentrating on hearing, one of the techniques suggested by my teacher Jeff Roth. Paying attention to senses, a common practice in meditation, often leads people to turn inwards. But try focusing outward sometimes, he urges. That morning I heard birds chirping, and a cat meowing, and hotel workers speaking to each other in Arabic, and cars driving on the nearby street.

On this delegation, I’ve heard the microphone-inhanced voice of our Palestinian guide passionately declaim about the occupation; the squeal of the tires of a car racing around in circles on the constrained roads of the Aida refugee camp; young Palestinian men celebrating on the roof of a car the release from prison of one of their friends; the smack of a young Palestinian boy suddenly hitting an Orthodox Jew on the back of the head in the Old City; the construction of settlements in historically Palestinian neighborhoods; the scream of Palestinian women on videos showing their children being beaten by the IDF.

One of the trip participants recently had treatment for melanoma and has to almost entirely cover her face while she’s outside, impairing her ability to see. In Bethlehem last week she took me by the arm as I led her from the city center back to our bus. “You know, for a moment this street sounds like it could be in New York, or Rome, or Mumbai.” She paused. “Except it’s not. This place still sounds different.”

In this hub of Abrahamic religions I’ve also often heard the muezzin (the person who calls Muslims to prayer) and church bells. But I haven’t heard public evidence of Jewish practice. What does Judaism sound like here? I’m afraid to wonder. During our visit to the refugee camp, our guide told the story of taking his children on a trip to Haifa. As they ran around the beach, they came to him in confusion, “There are kids here speaking Hebrew!” Yes, he replied, they are Jewish children. For his children, “Jewish” is a soldier.