dear god

thoughts on secular religion

I am under the impression that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques during prayer, and that suspicion has been confirmed just this morning, when I walked to the magnificent Blue Mosque only to be turned away because it was the time for prayer. No matter, though: I am staying nearby, and it will be easy to return at another time.

I decide to visit another mosque anyway. It’s on my list and conveniently located near one of the most beautiful lookout points in Istanbul, the Pierre Loti tea garden. When I arrive at Eyup Sultan, a mosque on Istanbul’s Golden Horn, I think that I might be one of the only tourists in a flood of humanity buying cotton candy and fresh-dipped lollipops outside the splendor of the mosque. Little boys in white robes and caps are being dragged by their fathers away from the sweets and towards the doors of the building, while mothers gather up their daughters to follow the sound of the call to prayer. And I follow them.

Taking out a scarf from my backpack and draping it around my head, I sharply remember that I haven’t quite figured out how to make the folds of the cloth look like those that these women wear, and frankly, it makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m playing dress-up with somebody’s religion when I so clearly do not belong—even in this courtyard outside the walls of the mosque itself.

But I remember then that I’m not wearing the Jewish star that has adorned my neck almost without fail, night and day, for the past two and a half years. A combination of my mother’s worrying and travel warnings from the various guidebooks I read before the trip encouraged me to take it off so that I wouldn’t be so easily identifiable as a Jew in a Muslim city. Removing the gold chain before my trip had felt a little painful, and I had to replace it with a necklace of similar weight so that my instinctual check to make sure it still lay on my collarbone didn’t cause a series of tiny, daily panic attacks until I got it back.

Now, though, the lack of the necklace gives me some comfort—maybe I can pass by to get a look at the mosque without anyone saying anything. But I still don’t look at home here, since if I’m not a Jew, I’m definitely an American, with my iPhone and backpack and Istanbul guidebook filled with sticky notes, highlighting, and dog-ears on the pages for rooftop bars and how to say “Where is the bathroom?” in Turkish. Even so, I hesitate before the door to the mosque, unsure if I should try to enter. And ultimately, even though I see another tourist enter the building out of the corner of my eye, I don’t go in, sitting instead on the bench in the inner courtyard, watching people surge into the space below the domes and listening to the sounds from the tiled interior of Eyup Sultan.

Across from me is the tomb of Muhammad’s standard-bearer, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, which also carries a few of Muhammad’s personal belongings and notable religious significance. In front of the tomb, a few men and woman bob their heads in prayer, eyes closed. A woman who can barely walk is leaning on a young man–perhaps her grandson, or maybe a caretaker–who smiles down at her and whispers into her ear as she shuffles towards the tomb—this is one of the only sounds in the respectful silence of the courtyard. One small boy in white is tugging on his father’s hand, bored of the scene, but even he remains silent. The father ignores the little tugs and continues his prayer. I almost laugh, but I catch myself. Even in the quiet, the devotion of the praying is tangible, and combined with the muted sounds of the mosque behind me, there’s a deeply religious air in this space that’s intensely peaceful and, surprisingly, barely foreign.

Soon, a young woman approaches me and encourages me to enter the mosque—I think, I don’t speak a word of Turkish—and I follow her to the women’s section, taking my shoes off and observing a service much like the ones at the synagogue I attended as a kid. Some are praying with fervor. Others play colorful games on their iPhones.

A week before, with the cracked stones of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter weathered beneath my feet, I wound through alleys of vendors towards the heart of the city—and indeed of the Jewish religion itself. When I was almost there, standing at an overlook above the Western Wall, I finally looked up from the water-soaked and slippery lanes of the Old City to watch men and women in black robes bob and sway before the rocks of the wall.

At least for someone who is Jewish, there is very little else like the Western Wall, very few places where ancient tradition still has a majestic and physical face. We certainly don’t have the magnificent architecture of Istanbul’s mosques or of St. Peter’s and Westminster Abbey to turn to; even the old synagogues that dot European cities tend to be small and simplistic compared to the churches and cathedrals next door to them. For although the religion’s tradition is long, history saw a long span without a Jewish nation to sponsor Vivaldi and Mozart or Raphael and Michelangelo. In fact, the sacred Second Temple from which the Western Wall heralds wasn’t even built under an ancient Jewish king, but under Cyrus the Great of Persia, whose empire at the time included Judea, and who was most likely a Zoroastrian. The wall itself was an extension to the temple built under Herod the Great, a Roman client king of Judea whose brutality is evidenced in his ultimate execution by his own family, including his wife. Even so, new archeological research shows that construction wasn’t even completed within Herod’s lifetime, but continued to progress until the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

In some ways, the wall itself is just an old ruin of a building several times sacked and destroyed, but that fact doesn’t change the significance of the site. In a religious sense, the power of the wall is in its proximity to the Temple Mount—the rock where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, where King Solomon built the First Temple and where the Holy of Holies was placed within it, as well as where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven. In part it’s the very interconnectedness of this location that matters. Its significance goes beyond Judaism and has, in fact, touched a number of different religions and cultures. But it’s also the novelty of having a uniquely Jewish space, though it comes with the realization that Jewish history is filled with greater characters than constructions, that makes the Western Wall so special. It remains a vibrant symbol of a time when Jews were unified, living together in one land before the diaspora took many to their deaths in Russian pogroms or the Spanish Inquisition.

But what I see before me is more powerful than its history. I walk down to the wall, stopping to have my bag x-rayed and to step through a body scanner—anachronistic evidence of the violence this city regularly faces—and enter into a bright courtyard. Stepping to the right side of the wall, a section reserved for the prayers of women, I take out a folded piece of paper from my pocket. As is the tradition, I’ve written down prayers for others on the slip, and soon I’ll press it into one of the cracks of the walls.

I don’t often pray these days, my belief in God having flitted between adamant, agnostic and atheistic throughout the years, but when I was younger, I certainly did. I remember lying in my pink-sheeted bed and looking intensely at the closet, talking to God. I don’t know quite why, but I was almost certain of the fact that God was in there—only when the doors were closed—but absolutely in there.  No monsters in the closet for me, I suppose. Somewhere along the way, I must have lost that sense, become hesitant to trust that everything was going to be okay or unwilling to risk the embarrassment that comes with speaking to something that doesn’t speak back.

Part of me certainly finds both the memory and the draw of it a little bit silly. Yet when I finally found a dirt-encrusted pen at the bottom of my backpack and began to write out my prayers, I found that I had a lot to pray for, that I had a lot of wishes for things whose outcomes I couldn’t control, and that once I began to write, the words came pretty easily. When I stepped away from the wall, walking backwards towards the open courtyard (since turning one’s back to the wall is acutely discouraged) I watched my white prayers rest between the gold-hued Jerusalem stones, just one small piece of paper among the hundreds stuffing every crack and cranny of that antique structure.

The truth is, I don’t know what was written on those other sheets, or even what languages they were written in, but each one is a comfort to me nonetheless. God or no God, what I do know is that my prayers are not alone. And it’s that aspect of religion that I can’t get away from—the sense that, all over the world, people are praying, and it means something. Somehow, it doesn’t matter whether any of those prayers are answered, just that they exist, that there’s an inescapable human yearning for more that all of us possess, no matter what they choose to fill it with.

But I can’t pretend to say that religion isn’t uncomfortable. There’s a disconnect between ourselves and God, between one religion and the next, even between practitioners of the same religion that raise questions, self-doubt and feelings of isolation. What it all comes down to, though, is how you approach that difference: you can stand outside of the mosque, or you can swallow the sinking feeling of alienation, and you can walk right in.