Seeing With Different Eyes as Well As My Own

Seeing With Different Eyes as Well As My Own.

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

On my very first trip to Israel, almost four decades ago in 1979, I toured Israel flanked by the silver crosses of two Roman Catholic nuns.

“If you ever tell anyone you toured Israel with two R.C. nuns, no one will believe it,” laughed Sister Mary Lou, one of the grey-haired nuns. Later I would simply call her Mary Lou, and her companion, Mary Grey. They had just been decorated with huge silver crosses at an audience with the Pope in Rome. It was a reward for years of service and achievement, as was this trip to the Holy Land.

And so, in the summer of 1979, I walked between their two crosses in safety anywhere in Israel. Anywhere in the Old City. And to East Jerusalem at night. In 1979, it was already imprudent for foreign women to walk alone in Arab neighborhoods.

Actually, we had been thrown together, Sister Mary Lou, Sister Mary Grey, and I because terrorist attacks in 1979 were already plentiful. It was a time of bombs in market places and garbage cans. The tension was such that most tours were canceled that June. And so El Al Airlines (on which our motley group was traveling) organized a special tour for those passengers who wanted one. We were strangers, staying at different hotels, but united by the common purpose of wanting to see Israel from a religious and historical point of view. Each day a bus would pick up all the tour participants from the various hotels at which they were registered.

The only tour members staying at my hotel, the Moriah, were the two elderly nuns. Sister Mary Lou was plump and cheerful, her round, happy face creased from time to time with worry about her heart condition. The trip demanded a lot of exertion. Sister Mary Grey, tall and lanky, austere in appearance, and, at first, rather severe in manner, suggested we three have dinner together the first night. Rather glumly, I complied. Touring with two nuns didn’t fit my initial idea of fun in Israel.

The first evening was somewhat stiff as slowly we got to know each other a little. They were nuns from the Sacred Heart. This, I learned, was the crème de la crème of orders. (Through the two Sisters, I was soon able to meet a whole fraternity of Sisters from different countries.) And through the two Marys, I was able to see Israel with different eyes as well as my own. I was to learn how important this land was to them as well, to see through their eyes the places that mattered to them as Christians. And in turn, they would learn the places that were significant to me as a Jew and be enriched with widened perception as well.

That first night, however, we were just getting acquainted. Neither wore headdresses or habits. Later I was surprised to find they put curlers in their hair at night. Just like other people. I was not yet a rabbi; nor did I have any thought yet, nor would I for many years, that I wanted to be one.

Fast forward to two weeks later: Like happy schoolgirls, Mary Lou and Mary Grey spread out their “loot” for me to ooh and aah over on the twin beds of their hotel room. They may have looked like sorority friends chuckling over purchases in a college dorm, but I already knew that they were brilliant Ph.D nuns simply thrilled beyond belief on their last night in Israel. In the morning, they would return to their convents in New Orleans and Texas. In the meantime, they had bought out Israel. Candlesticks, menorahs, chalices, crucifixes, and linens cascaded all over the beds onto the floor of the hotel room, obscuring the carpet. They had bought presents for every bishop, priest, nun, and relative (an embroidered blouse for a young niece) they could remember.

“We’ll never be able to come back,” Mary Lou whispered, clutching her heart. “This is the trip of our lifetime.”

Mary Lou had gripped her bosom in horror earlier in the trip. We almost had to carry her out of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. “We didn’t know, Corinne. We didn’t know,” she sobbed to me. I held her against me gently. “I’m sure you didn’t know, Mary Lou,” I answered softly, reassuringly.

They were wonderful nuns, splendid people. Side-by-sided with their two silver crosses, I attended the Bar Mitzvah of a thirteen-year-old tour member. His parents extended an invitation to the whole touring bus – now cohesive and groupy. Total inclusion. We sang the service happily together and sampled the Kiddush with gusto.

When I got home, I bought a six-pointed Star of David studded with little diamonds. I have worn it on a delicate chain around my neck ever since. It would be ten years before I would be able to visit Israel again.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. Excerpted from my much longer article entitled “A Star is Born…” and published in The B’nai Brith Covenant, Toronto, Ontario, 1989.