Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cemeteries and Stereotypes

There’s a Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. If you look out east from the Old City, across the Kidron Valley, you’ll see it. You can’t miss it. Hundreds and hundreds of tombs covering the hillside, stone boxes packed together densely like a city with nowhere else to spread. Jewish tradition holds that the first resurrection will take place on this mount, so what better place to be buried.

Today I walked south along the Mount of Olives, straddling the eastern side of the cemetery, looking down upon the graves whenever I got the chance. I first saw the cemetery about a week ago, and ever since I have wanted to spend some time with it. Most of my travel companions don’t share my enthusiasm for the cemetery, however. Fortunately for me, our route today to the Dominus Flevit took us right past it, and I got the closer look I’ve been wanting—or at least a little of it.

All the tombs are inscribed in Hebrew, which I can’t read, so I couldn’t satisfy my standard cemetery curiosity. I couldn’t contemplate the cause of this child’s early death or the love that must have existed between the husband and wife buried side by side. I could only look on row after row of nearly identical tombs with their ten-commandment-tablet-like covers lying in various stages of ruin. Each one is an individual. But to me they are all the same, the individual lost in the collective mass.

Our Islam and Palestine professor, Dr. Bashir Bashir, spent the full of two, two-hour lecture periods trying to get us all to understand that the Orient is not an ontological reality, that our conceptions of the Orient—or of Islam, “the West,” or Judaism for that matter—are nothing more than constructions, and that variations—anomalies—always exist within the categories we create in our efforts to simplify and order our world. Whenever we categorize we run the risk of overlooking the exception, alienating the anomaly. Case in point: we had students in class nearly up in arms, concerned out of their minds that Dr. Bashir was accusing them all of being narrow-minded Americans with superiority complexes. He wasn’t, of course, but they were on the defensive the moment they felt shoved into a category in which they didn’t fit.

And so yesterday when I went on and on to a group of friends about how sophomore girls—who constitute the majority of our Jerusalem Center student body—were evidently younger to me, hard for me to relate to, and not necessarily my ideal dating material, my friend Tucker’s observation that so many stereotypes are reinforced simply by our holding them, it struck home. In my categorizing, have I blinded myself to the variation?

Looking at those graves at the cemetery, all I can really make out is a bunch of Jews who believe they’ve got prime real estate for the resurrection. What I don’t see is the Jew who maybe doubted he’d ever live again after taking that last breath but thought he’d play it safe, or the Jew who couldn’t bear the thought of being buried anywhere other than alongside her husband of 34 years, or the Jew who in his dying moments kissed the hands of his now middle-aged daughter. Or the Jew who never quite thought it was right to hate her Palestinian neighbors and loved them as her own people.

I’ve recently made a friend in a Coloradoan named Megan; however, she tells me it takes her a while to trust people, to really be herself. She doesn’t like to reveal too much of herself too quickly because she’s afraid that she won’t be accepted for who she is. I want her to trust me, to feel comfortable being who she wants to be, and yet at times I am all too aware of how very shortsighted I am, of how easily I can judge, of how easy it is for me to confine friends or family to just one thing I see in them and then feel betrayed—disappointed—when they turn out to be something else.

I want her to feel safe, and I like what I see in her, so I invited her to think of opinions or beliefs she holds that she would be pretty sure I would disagree with—and then we could talk about them. I wanted her to know that it is okay for her not to be what I expect her to be. But even after extending that invitation, I fear—what if I am not capable of accepting who she is? What if I betray her trust, lash out in critical judgment?

I’m reminded of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who, when returning to the land of Canaan after a long journey away, prayed to the God of his fathers for deliverance from the wrath of his twin brother, Esau. The humility of his prayer astounds me: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Genesis 32:10, emphasis mine). I showed this scripture to Megan and shared a little gospel insight I had—that we sometimes get impatient wanting to know all the answers, never once stopping to consider whether or not we are living worthy to receive further knowledge. But Megan said that it’s the same with people—sometimes we want to know everything about them right from the get-go without taking the time to earn their trust, to get to know them through the natural course of things.

I got the hint. I need to give our friendship time. Maybe neither of us is ready for that full disclosure of self, not yet. We have to take it step by step.

But maybe that’s why we cast stereotypes, why we resort to generalities and reductions, in the first place—we just cannot comprehend or embrace the many diversities that are to be found in every group and in every individual. So we simplify, categorize, stereotype—because we are not ready to see more or simply because we have not yet taken the time or exerted the effort to find something more.

And I think that’s okay—as long as we are aware of it, as long as we know that the homogeneity, the simplified view, is not a reality but a construction, a sort of fill-in-the-blanks for all that we still can’t comprehend. As we humbly approach knowledge—understanding that we are not worthy nor capable of knowing it all—then we will begin to look past our pragmatic but ultimately temporary and incomplete visions of others and we will begin to witness those idiosyncrasies that make each of us human, each of us a work of art, an individualized story to be told. And because we’ve given it time, done the work to see, we won’t run screaming in fear of the new and unexpected; rather, we’ll raise our eyebrows in pleasant surprise, smile, and search for more—because we’ve discovered an affinity for that which shatters our expectations.


  1. Great post, Brennan. But it's early and my brain's not one yet, so for all its truth this comment will sound very trite:

    You've given me a lot to think about.

    1. Well, I suppose if I can give you even just one small thing to think about, it will start off my slow payback for all the things you've given me to think about over the years. I love you, Zack!

  2. Not only are you a great writer, but philosopher! I'm learning, at a much later age, that everything you said is 100% correct.
    On a different note, I, too, loved the Jewish cemetery. There is a Christian one to the south of Church of All Nations. That's where I want to be buried!
    Janice Goimarac

    1. Thanks, Janice! I'm glad you share an appreciation for the Jerusalem cemeteries. They are awesome.

  3. Brennan I love this post! You really are an amazing writer! I think I'm your biggest fan! I have read it at least 5 times now and it still hits me hard.