Old City of Jerusalem - Gora Berger
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo by Gora Berger
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Melissa Meschler
Jacob Newberry Photo by Melissa Meschler

Throngs of American Christians flock to Israel's storied capital every year. But Jacob Newberry, who grew up in a conservative, Baptist home in a small Mississippi town, is on a decidedly different kind of pilgrimage.

Now "pretty firmly atheist," 28-year-old Newberry has been living in Jerusalem since September and documenting the experiences of people with similar religious backgrounds who are in Israel on some form of spiritual journey.

Newberry is one of two Fulbright scholars spending the academic year in Israel at Bar-Ilan University's English-language master's program in creative writing, where his focus is on writing texts related to Israel and its Christian imagery.

"The deep undercurrent of longing for Israel and Jerusalem is essential to so much of American Protestant imagery and narrative," says Newberry. It is also, in his view, part of the reason Israel is such an important part of America's political debate.

Newberry's first visit to Israel about six years ago, at the age of 21, was "a transformational experience," he says. He had just come out as gay, and his lifelong dream of becoming a professional pianist had been shattered. "I needed to go somewhere that would feel like healing, and for some reason Jerusalem was just very clearly the place," he says.

That feeling lingered years later when he was applying to the Fulbright program as a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Florida State University. The idea of moving to Jerusalem "made more sense the more that I thought about it," he says.

Living in Jerusalem has proven to be "a secular pilgrimage" to his past, says Newberry. And his writing - mainly poetry and essays - has been a way to form shapeless emotions into "a prism for me to encounter the world." Indeed, the thrust of Newberry's work has focused on the Jerusalem landscape in the great tradition of visitors to the Holy City. Reading Israeli and Palestinian poetry by Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish has been an important part of the process, as have regular visits to the West Bank. These experiences, he says, have helped him think about "the anxiety of Western privilege."

Many of Newberry's peers at Bar-Ilan are Jews whose identity "happens to be central to their writing," he says. As a non-Jew, Newberry is unsure whether this exposure will have an impact on his own work. "If it has, it is in ways that I'm not aware of," he says.

That feeling of "being unsettled" is in fact part of Newberry's reason for coming to Israel, he explains. Israeli culture is "surprisingly alien in certain ways" and still familiar in others, he says. Shabbat closing times - a principle he admires - and classes on Christmas Day have taken some getting used to, as have the security procedures, which he says he understands but nevertheless finds alienating.

Newberry notes that as a gay man he has found Israel to be generally welcoming, although his long dark hair has been the subject of "merciless open-mouthed staring" in Jerusalem.

"There are so many people I have met that it's irrelevant to them that I'm gay; I'm just a person," he says. "I knew that Israel was a place that I could be openly gay, and be fine, and that was pretty much the only country I knew I would come to if I came to the Middle East, certainly to live."

Already, Newberry's work is receiving significant attention. His essay "Summer" is featured in the latest issue of the prestigious literary magazine "Granta," where he is in the company of renowned authors such as Israeli writers Amos Oz and David Grossman. Yet Newberry appears unfazed by his own success, referring to himself dryly as "as a failed pianist who is trying to write."

"I met Jay two summers after Katrina, two years after my parents separated, two years after I came out. It was June in Mississippi: the palms sagged from the heat by mid-morning, their brown fronds shaking in the weak sea breeze. If you stood on the shore, you could see the barrier islands through the haze in the distance, small specks in an empty sea", writes Newberry in "Summer."

Newberry will read "Summer," which recalls three summers with four gay friends in Mississippi, at Granta's first-ever Israeli reading next month. The event will be held on February 9 at the Tel Aviv bookstore Sipur Pashut.