Single White Nerd: Going WooWoo in a Cave
I’m sitting in pitch dark silence. All around me, people are singing softly in Hebrew. I don’t feel the urge to puke. In fact, I want to join in. I can’t. Don’t know Hebrew. Instead I hum along. What the hell is going on here?
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about getting nauseous at the very sound of Hebrew (you should read that entry. It’ll make this entry make a bit more sense) and now I’m sitting in a cave in Israel wishing I could speak, or sing it. Who have I become? Have I gone completely woo-woo in the Middle East?
Even four days ago, I would not have been okay with this. The group I was traveling with had been in Jerusalem. We went to the Western Wall. My guidebook told me that this was the holiest site in all the land. The representation of the Western Wall of the First Temple. Very important. People touch this wall, they leave notes in its crevasses, they touch it and break down into tears as they feel the weight of thousands of generations of Jews pressing around them. Very moving.
People in my group touched the wall. Some broke down in tears. All around me, people were having profound reactions. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I approached. Part of me wanted an intense WooWoo experience—after all, that was partially why I’d come. So, eager for the breath of God or something to enter my spirit, I reached out and touched the wall.
“Wow,” I thought, “That is one old wall.” And that was it. No revelation. Nothing. I wondered how uncool it would be to take some of the notes out of the wall and read them. I decided it would be pretty uncool.
Over the next couple days, we saw quite a few notable historical sites. Our guides told story after story. They all began with some iteration of “One thousand years ago. . .” and would go on interminably until we reached the next stop. It was all very educational. And exhausting. And utterly unmoving.
That all changed in the middle of the desert. In a cave. I realize that I’m flirting with cliché, here. “Oh, really, a spiritual experience in a cave in the desert.” Ugh. I know. But here’s what went down:
Our 12 person group tromped about ten minutes into the desert and found ourselves standing above a not super impressive hole in the dirt. Our guide, Michal, assured us that the cave was completely safe. No one in his groups had ever died while crawling around in the limestone tunnels. He told us to leave our packs above, bring our flashlights, and be careful on the way down. Very reassuring.
With that, we descended into a large cavern. Over a thousand years ago (of course), the cavern we’d entered had been a cistern. It had provided water for a Jewish town living under Roman rule. There’d apparently been a big revolt against the Romans. They squished it and proceeded to do the things that most regimes do when squishing a rebellion—forbid religious ceremonies, try to generally stamp out the culture of those who dared to stand against them, and rape people. Particularly women who had just been married.
In the face of this tyranny, the people who lived above the cistern were determined to somehow maintain their cultural identity. So they went down into the cistern and, just above the water-line, started digging a network of tunnels. The tunnels were not large—just wide enough to a accommodate a not particularly large person. They branched off in all sorts of confusing directions to mislead anyone who stumbled upon them. And, just in case someone did find out about the cave, the townfolk had created a bunch of small offshoots, just large enough to hide a small person, a child perhaps, with a spear. To, you know, stick the bad guys.
If followed correctly, the tunnels lead to a larger cave, big enough to fit 200 people. People would congregate in the cave when the lookout spotted the Romans coming to wreak havoc. They’d congregate there for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, even births. Their entire culture literally moved underground to survive.
So, after clambering through the tunnels, battling long dormant claustrophobia, and bonking my head on the ceiling a few times, I found myself in this cave. We all sat in a circle as Michal told us about its creation. He told a story of two women who gave birth in the cave as the Romans searched the village above. Only a couple of meters of earth separate the cave from the surface; people above could conceivably hear loud noises from below. Legend has it that these two women endured the fun of childbirth in silence to protect themselves and the community.
Legend or not, that takes some serious will-power.
After telling the story, Michal asked our permission to turn out the lights and sit in silence for a few minutes. Everyone nodded. We took a deep breath, a last drink of water, and turned off our flashlights.
Darkness and silence. Seriously. No animals live down there. People were breathing so softly that, even concentrating, I could barely hear them. My imagination took over, imagining two hundred people gathered around me instead of twelve. Listening for footsteps above. Waiting for the all clear signal that would allow us to go back up to the surface. I imagined an entire village gathered to observe, silently, the rituals of their culture. To preserve their sense of identity in the face of violence and adversity. And I realized that, though some accident of birth, I was probably tangentially related to the people who had worked so hard to create these caves as safe haven for themselves.
That, I thought in the darkness, is kind of cool. More than that, it’s worth learning about and is probably not something to be puked at.
As this thought flitted into my brain, someone started to sing. Softly at first. Then a little louder. Another person joined in. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell who was singing. But the voices have filled the chamber.
All around me, people are singing in Hebrew. I don’t feel the urge to puke. In fact, I want to join in. I can’t. Don’t know Hebrew. Instead, I hum along.
The vibrations of the song loosen something inside me and, hidden in cover of darkness, I feel myself start to cry. Just a little. No dramatic sobbing. Just a small, salt-water acknowledgment that I have a lot to learn.
Featured Image Credit: wikicommons (note: not the same cave that Michael featured)