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Holy Land Harps

I played for the evangelical Christians in Jerusalem, but the angels sang for me

Liz Rose Shulman
December 23, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

This is not a story about the Irish in Bethlehem. It’s about harps, an instrument that produces heavenly music. The particular harp I played—Micah called it the Atara Nevel—was about 2 feet long; I sat on a wood stool, almost squatting, back straight, the harp resting between my knees, my legs pointed outward to accommodate the instrument. It’s important, when playing the harp, to have an open body posture. Micah said a relaxed body indicates a free mind, which one needs, to let the music flow through you. The harp was made of ancient olive wood, hand carved by Micah himself. When I played the way Micah instructed, the tourists’ heads turned toward me; I’d soon have them hooked.

This was the plan, of course, to play the harps and get evangelical Christians to buy them. Thousands had descended on Jerusalem for their weeklong annual pilgrimage. I can’t remember the name of the conference, but I’m sure it included words like “Encounter” or “Summit” or “Forum.”

The outside part of the harp bowed and curved up. When I played for the tourists, Micah instructed, my chin should be drawn upward, too, so that it aligned with the top corner of the harp. “Your chin and the tip of the harp should be parallel,” I’m sure he told me, more than once, his long white hair falling behind his shoulders, the few times I was with him.

I placed both wrists on either side of the harp, my right hand just an inch higher than the left. I had to make sure my fingertips brushed the strings gently, my hands relaxed and loose. As the tourists arrived, as they did in droves, I caressed the strings like I was stroking a new lover’s cheek, barely touching it. My face looked up toward the sky—or, in our case, the ceiling of the Jerusalem Convention Center—as I began strumming. Then I closed my eyes. The convergence of my fingers with the strings was divine. The sound reverberated and filled the space. The music became air itself—a soft and melodious cry, as though God himself was speaking through me.

We had arrived to Binyanei Ha’uma—the convention center’s name back in 1994—hours before the evangelicals came, in order to set up. Before heading to Jerusalem, the evangelicals toured the small country, most for the first time. They visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They dunked themselves in the Sea of Galilee up north and afterwards, ate lunch in nearby Tiberias. Once they arrived in Jerusalem, they visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walked the 14 Stations of the Cross in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. They bought Christian trinkets in the shuk, the Arab market just inside Jaffa Gate. Then they arrived at the convention center.

Until I worked the fair, I had little interaction with evangelicals in Jerusalem. One of my friends, Sheryl, a grad student like me, had been working for Micah and asked if I wanted to help out with the “fair” to make some extra money. Micah had suggested we wear white robes, but I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I wore a white skirt and a white tank top; I made $20 for the day.

Micah and his wife, Shoshanna Harrari, are the owners of Harrari Harps, the only gallery-workshop in Israel that makes biblical harps. According to their website, the handcrafted harps are “Temple Quality Since 1984.” The first harp Micah made was a birthday gift for Shoshanna—the name means rose in Hebrew, and is my Hebrew name, too. Shoshanna “was seeking an instrument to connect her soul to the true source of music,” the site states. It also claims that Micah was the first person to make a harp in Israel in 2,000 years. Each harp they construct is carefully crafted based on their research of ancient biblical harps in Israel, which also include “Talmudic writings and archeological findings.”

The harps all have biblical names: Atara Nevel (the one I played at the evangelical convention), Kinnor David, Kinnor Elijah, Davita, and King David. Wood choices include cherry, walnut, maple, cypress, rosewood, and olive. “Israeli olive,” the site boasts, “is among the most ancient of our wood choices.” Using native wood to build their harps is, in part, what makes them attractive to buyers. But olive wood has long been identified with Palestinian culture and livelihood, too; over a million Palestinian olive trees have been destroyed by the Israeli government to make way for roads, settlements and walls.

I’d seen evangelicals before I worked the fair, of course, moving in large groups around the ancient city wearing khaki pants, wide white hats, and newly purchased gym shoes. They followed a leader who carried a bright pink umbrella. I was a 24-year-old Jewish American graduate student at Hebrew University and had been living in Jerusalem for two years, and I was dating Tavit, an Armenian Christian who lived in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City. Together, we laughed at the tourists. Their presence helped me feel more grounded in the city I would make my home for five years before returning to Chicago. They stayed in hotels; I had an apartment. Tavit had a house in the Old City. His family had been in Jerusalem for 800 years.

Somewhere in between the tourists and Tavit, I stood, equidistant between the two extremes of temporary and permanent. Without the two poles, I’d wobble. Tavit’s friends owned shops where the evangelicals bought their trinkets, and they jacked up prices when the tourists arrived. I was a witness to their coming and going week by week as I stayed year after year.

I was deeply in love with Jerusalem. I was in love with Tavit, too, and laughing with him at those who dabbled in the city for a week deepened my connection to Jerusalem. I didn’t have to work hard to love the city, though. Since I was a little girl, I had been told that Israel was my birthright. No one had more claim on this land than the Jews, family and friends preached.

Now, when I think about the years I lived in Jerusalem in my 20s, it seems fitting that I was hanging out with Armenians, and later, Palestinians, that I put on a show for evangelicals. I didn’t have many Jewish friends, and the few I did were studying abroad, like I was. Something inside me I could not name knew the land wasn’t only for Jews. Despite the messages I received growing up, I felt something unsettling in my core.

Since those days, my Zionism has unraveled like an old sweater. One string was pulled when a seed was planted—perhaps on my first trip to the West Bank with Tavit when I began learning about the Palestinian narrative—and now, the whole sweater has come apart. The sweater the Zionists around me wear is too tight; the fabric can’t breathe.

One day, Tavit and I were in his friend Musaf’s shop on the Via Dolorosa near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We sat on tiny wicker chairs and drank coffee from little glasses we rested on a round copper coffee table. We smoked a joint. I’m pretty sure it was late afternoon; I remember the western sun that day, like every day in Jerusalem, toward the end of the afternoon, sharp and strong. All of a sudden, we heard a noisy crowd. It wasn’t uncommon to see tourists making their way down the Via Dolorosa, but this was louder than usual. We looked out from inside the shop.

In the street, several people were walking behind and alongside a man with long hair. He was hunched over, wearing cream-colored shorts, walking in the middle of the narrow street. On the man’s back was a large wooden cross—I’ll call him Jesus. Tavit, Musaf, and I stood in the doorway of the shop. Inside, copper swords and bronze necklaces hung on the walls.

Out on the street, a woman who walked next to the man with the camera said, “Do it again.” I remember her face. She was irritated, like a frustrated director. “And try to look like you’re suffering this time.” Jesus walked back several feet, and, looking forlorn, carried the cross on his back once more. This time, he bent his back forward more, wincing intensely, trying to look like he was in pain. Apparently, this attempt still wasn’t good enough, for the others appeared unhappy with Jesus’ second performance. “We’re done,” the woman said.

A few minutes later, another Jesus tried out for the part. Tavit, Musaf and I looked at one another, each with one foot inside the shop and the other foot outside on the street’s stones, wobbling on the threshold of these two different worlds. Grabbing our bellies, we laughed so hard—I thought I must have just smoked really good weed. Tavit said this happened sometimes, and it was just part of living in this crazy city.

I later learned that carrying a cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is a common rite of passage for Christians. Like the actors, the evangelical tourists I played the harp for at the fair were simply background scenery for those of us who were living and working in Jerusalem. We saw them as a pack, never as individuals. They existed in our minds only as “the evangelicals.”

In 1994, Harrari Harps was located in downtown West Jerusalem, just off Yoel Solomon, a small pedestrian street with cafés, restaurants, and galleries. Their shop was tucked behind a hidden courtyard just behind Yoel Solomon, called Nachlat Shiva. When you’d amble down Nachlat Shiva, you’d feel as though you stumbled upon the small courtyard by accident, like you were the first to discover the artisan shops along the limestone alleyways that look as though they were built right into the ancient stone and curved arches.

Nachlat Shiva, which means “Inheritance of the Seven,” was the third neighborhood built outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. The phrase is a reference to the seven families who, as the story goes, in 1869, bought homes in the neighborhood in an effort to venture beyond the Old City. One of the neighborhood’s first homes was bought by Yoel Solomon—for whom the pedestrian street adjacent to Nachlat Shiva is called. Solomon ran a printing press, and his earliest publication was called HaShoshanna, a guidebook whose shape resembled a rose. Once, while I was hanging out at Harrari Harps, Shoshanna Harrari tried to teach me how to play Bach’s Minuet in G Major.

A good friend, Miriam, was working at a bookstore café, in the same hidden courtyard a few doors down. The name of the café, Tmol Shilshom, Hebrew for “Only Yesterday,” is the same name of a novel by S.Y. Agnon, the first Israeli writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. When the bookstore opened in 1994, the year Miriam got a job there, Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s greatest poet, read his poetry at the opening.

Today, Tmol Shilshom is a literary hotspot in Jerusalem with regular readings and book events, tucked away into the small courtyard of Nachlat Shiva. (The owner died of COVID-19 last year.) Sometimes, when I wasn’t hanging out at the nearby Champ’s Bar around the corner on Yoel Solomon Street or at Harrari Harps in the courtyard, I did homework for my grad classes at Tmol Shilshom if Miriam was working that day. When her boss wasn’t paying attention, she’d bring me cheddar cheese sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice. My favorite table was right next to a dark wood bookcase, its shelves built into an arched limestone wall.

The day Shoshanna Harrari showed me how to play Bach’s Minuet in G Major, I clumsily plucked the strings with heavy fingers. I was trying to play the harp the same way I had played around with my brother’s guitar years before—picking the strings hard, out of insecurity.

“Watch me,” Shoshanna said. As though a spirit had just entered her body, she lifted her chin—I remember she had such lovely, tight skin—lowered her eyes, arched her back. Her toes, visible in her brown Naot sandals, made in a factory up north in Israel, curled upward as she ran her fingers across the harp. Though she barely touched the strings, the sound that emanated was full-bodied and penetrated the entire gallery. A couple weeks later, my friend Sheryl asked if I wanted to help out at the evangelical fair.

We set up the booth like the gallery itself. We put bright colored red and orange fabric on small tables to accentuate the different wood harps. Shoshannah brought a rug with blue and green stripes. Each harp was different and demanded a table appropriate to its height. Other booths sold Christian books, nativity scenes made from olive wood, anointing oil and oil lamps made up north near the Sea of Galilee.

It wasn’t a sham, though, for Micah and Shoshannah. They sincerely believed that the music from their homemade harps brings people closer to the Holy Land; they liken their harp-making to a calling. In a 2008 interview on Israel National Radio, Shoshannah explained that she and Micah had been wandering in the United States when they came across the Hebrew Bible. Quoting the Prophets, Shoshannah said God called his children from the four corners of the earth. “He will bring them back to their own land and He will replant them and never uproot them again,” she recited.

According to the shop’s website, Micah isn’t just a master craftsman. He’s also a Levite, a descendant of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Levites assisted the priests in the ancient Jewish Temple. In addition to making harps for tourists, the Harraris also have a mission to prepare harps for when the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem.

Micah and Shoshannah’s dedication to the rebuilding of the third Temple is so fierce that cities mentioned on their site exist not in their current state, but in their biblical context. “The harp’s gentle sound was even heard in faraway Jericho,” for example; Jericho today is a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Those who visit Micah and Shoshannah’s website are invited to donate any amount for their “Temple Harp Project.” The harps will reside at the Temple Institute of Jerusalem in the Old City for dedication, they say, where they will wait, with other harps, for the Temple to be rebuilt. The location for the third Temple, should it ever be built, it’s believed, is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the current location of the Dome of the Rock—a holy Islamic site built in 691 CE.

I suppose I should have felt bad masquerading at the fair, pretending to be a harp player for a few hours. I was complicit in perpetuating the evangelicals’ one-dimensional love for the city. I helped them view Jerusalem as the land of the Bible, a place of salvation where Christ will return. But I didn’t feel bad. I enjoyed playing the harp that day, one eye on the instrument and the other watching their faces as they swooned at the sound. For, though I scoffed at the evangelicals with a kind of moral superiority, I wasn’t, ultimately, that much different from them when it came to my own love for Jerusalem. What did I care if some Christians came to the city for a week? They’d soon be back in their suburbs getting fat, driving their minivans, and, maybe, learning to play a harp that would eventually collect dust on their living room mantel.

Before I left Jerusalem in 1995, I bought my parents a harp from the Harrari’s, too. It’s a Davita, named for Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel, Davita’s Harp. It’s made from Israeli rosewood. “From your Shoshannah,” I wrote on the card when I gave it to them. It hangs on their living room wall, next to the mantel, collecting dust in their house in the suburbs.

It would be several more years until I would understand the historical relationship between Christian and Jewish Zionism, and the symbiotic effort to squeeze out any reference to the Palestinian lives and villages destroyed in 1948. Among Christian and Jewish Zionists, the Palestinians who live under Israel’s military occupation—even those who are Christian—just don’t come up.

The Harrari’s gallery-workshop is now located in the moshav Ramat Raziel, a small Israeli cooperative about 17 kilometers west of Jerusalem. When I saw the new address on their website, I wondered if they still had their shop in Nachlat Shiva, too. Their email address is listed on the site, so I decided to write them and ask. Shoshannah replied to my inquiry a few days later. She didn’t remember me, but she did recall my friend Sheryl who had gotten me the daylong gig at the evangelical fair. She was tired of commuting to Jerusalem; she thinks the former gallery in Nachlat Shiva is now a restaurant.

Moshav Ramat Raziel was established in 1948, the same year Israel became a state. It’s just off Highway 395—a road known for its 20 kilometers of limestone ruins and pine tree forests that winds through the Jerusalem hills—the same hills where Palestinian villages were destroyed in 1948. For over a century, the Jewish National Fund has been planting trees in Israel, some of which cover up remains of some of these villages—except, perhaps, a few remnants like a cistern or a terrace, so that visitors to the area can marvel at the “biblical ancient ruins.”

Decades later, I drove through the forests on the way to Jerusalem from the airport and became sick. As a little girl, I was proud to have saved my allowance and planted a tree; I was told it was a selfless act. I still have the certificate that was sent to me in return in the mail: A small child with brown pigtails digs into the earth with a shovel, the tree a primary green, bright, like green M&M’s.

Moshav Ramat Raziel is built on the ruins of the Palestinian village Kasla. The village was destroyed on July 17, 1948, in an operation called Operation Dani by the Harel Brigade. Ramat Raziel is named for David Raziel, a commander of the Irgun, a Zionist underground paramilitary organization whose mission in 1948 was to “depopulate” Palestinian villages. Before it was destroyed, Kasla had 78 homes. Three-hundred-thirty people lived there. Sixty-one people lived in Kasla in 1596. In the 19th century, two springs provided fresh water for the village. Kasla’s villagers planted olives, fruit, and grain in the lowlands. Crops drank the rain, irrigated from the springs. The villagers were Muslim. I read that almond trees grow on top of the mountain, cactuses along the southern slopes.

Shoshannah’s email finished as warmly as it began. “Here we are out in the forest,” she wrote, “a different kind of beauty.” She ended her email with “Blessings,” and I was sure that she meant it.

Liz Rose Shulman is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.