'As a Catholic Priest, I Know Israel From the Bible. It's So Different in Reality'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A Catholic group on a pilgrimage through the Holy Land, and a young Israeli refusing to follow her peers to Tel Aviv

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
Martin Modemann.
Martin Modemann.Credit: Meged Gozani
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Martin Modemann, 57, lives in Cologne; flying to Frankfurt

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

I am a Catholic priest and I was visiting with 12 people from my church, via the Opus Dei – “Work of God” – organization. It was a pilgrimage. We have a center in Abu Ghosh [outside Jerusalem], and from there went on all kinds of outings, to Jerusalem, but also to the Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea.

How was it?

It was great; the weather was excellent. I know this land from the Bible. I have read it many times, and it was thrilling because now I am actually reading it with fresh eyes, and new images arise in my mind’s eye. Now I know where all the sites are. I imagined things that I am familiar with, but it is so different in reality, because there are not many forests and mountains. Everything was new.

Which was the nicest place?

The Old City of Jerusalem, where we walked through the alleys, seeing different cultures and meeting people from all kinds of religions. On Sunday we had a secular Jewish guide who told us what is happening in the city from the political point of view, about the tensions between the religious and secular publics. Another day we had a Palestinian guide from Bethlehem. It was good to see both sides of the story.

Did you decide which side is right?

I felt that it is actually the same story, only told from different perspectives. It is very clear that it is not easy for the Palestinians to live here, and one can see from the degree of tension that it’s not simple for Jews, either. But Christianity and Judaism ultimately believe in the same God. When we were at the Western Wall I had to wear a skullcap, but I could pray. We are talking about the same Deus. I would not be able to pray in a mosque.

Okay, let’s drop politics. How did you become a priest?

I grew up in a believing home and I was religious. In my 20s, I attended university, completely regular studies – I am also an engineer – and I also studied with a religious group. When I finished the degree I faced the question of which direction to take, and I decided that I wanted to be a priest. I was 26, and to be ordained as a priest, you also have to study for five years in Rome. It wasn’t a difficult decision, I loved Rome.

Did you meet the pope?

Even twice. I love being a priest and I love my church – this is a good life for me.

What do you actually do as a priest during the day? Because I got most of my unreliable information on the subject from the second season of “Fleabag.”

There is prayer in the morning, and then it depends. Many times I organize things related to the church, work with young people in the community, teach; I have organized camps for Catholic youth. At midday I meditate and afterward I meet with people or groups with ties to the church. I visit elderly or sick people from the community in order to help them, talk to them. And I pray – sometimes I just pray for myself. I don’t consider myself a leader, I think of myself more as a servant. The God of the Christians is a God of love, and many people are looking for love. My mission is to show them that love.

And do they see it?

Fewer and fewer people in Germany attend church. That is disturbing and difficult for me, but I think that next to tranquility, people are looking for more and more inner peace and for peace on the outside. For us, Jesus is the son of God – he was here in Jerusalem and was crucified here, in this very place. It was cruel, but he came into the world and did it to show us God’s love.

Sounds a bit paradoxical.

It is not the love of someone who punishes or someone who says, “This is good and this is bad.” What happened to Jesus, what people did to him, is suffering, but Jesus said that we must not respond with violence, and in my eyes that is possible only if you believe in God or that he is love and takes you to his heart. These things need to be learned; you must know them in your head, and study, and also understand in the heart because there are things that are impossible to explain.

So is it head or heart?

As I see it, heart and brain together. In my opinion, you need to understand in order to believe.

Hadar Maoz.Credit: Meged Gozani

Hadar Maoz, 22, lives in Kfar Tavor; arriving from Cyprus

Hello, can I ask you what you did in Cyprus?

I came back home from visiting a girlfriend who is studying medicine there.

Where is home?

I’m living with my parents now. I have done army, trekking and preferential [subsidized, post-army] work, and I came back to Kfar Tavor. I am working in a small, cute café in the local council building.

It’s lovely in Kfar Tavor.

Absolutely. The view is incredible. The mountain is opposite us, and at the edge of our house all the fields stretch out in front of you. We moved a lot since I was a girl. I grew up in Modi’in, I lived in all kinds of places, in the city, on a moshav and in a total pit in the south, until we found ourselves in the Lower Galilee. I think we won’t budge from here. Overall, I am not a city person. But I also love the desert.

Have you lived in the desert?

After my army service I lived in Khan Hashayarot, which is a really love place [near Sde Boker]. That’s where I did my preferential work, in tourism. It’s a place stuck in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to move, you don’t see a thing except for the desert, tents, Bedouin and a few camels on the horizon. The desert gives off this silence, and it is very present in the air. I would sit all day and not do much, so I felt that I was inside the landscape, part of it. I feel that in the Golan Heights, too. Those corners are good for me.

What do you mean by “corners”?

I don’t know how it is where you come from, but people of my age, wherever they’re from, the north or the south, are all scurrying to Tel Aviv, as if there’s treasure there. It’s not good for me to be in those places. I don’t presume to be making a statement, and for sure it does do something, only it’s not suitable for me. Even in Kfar Tavor, at my parents’, I feel like I’m always running, and even if I’m just drinking coffee, I feel that I’m missing out on something.

Where can you run to in Kfar Tavor?

There aren’t many options. Let’s say that when I went back to my parents, I wanted to study something, take a course, not something long-term, but there was nothing within an hour’s radius. In the end I had no choice – I registered for a course in Haifa. It was a course at an alternative medicine center dealing with body language.

Interesting subject.

There were a lot of people there from therapeutic professions, but I came with no background, simply because it interested me. I don’t know whether I can now decipher other people’s body language, but it definitely helped me decipher myself.

What did you discover?

That I start things and it’s hard for me to finish them, because I get enthusiastic fast and I also get bored fast.

How’s that reflected in body language?

You need two markers, one isn’t enough. One nuance I have is in walking, I step hard on my heels; and the second marker is in tone of speech. I start the story enthusiastically, and then the tone fades and the sentence ends. It’s nice to find out something new about yourself, even if it’s a bit sad.

But then you can also do something with it.

I’m not sure. In fact, from observation and dialogue with myself to improve, the question also arises whether there aren’t things in which I am simply me. You need to know what to accept, what to improve and when to say “deal with it,” not only to others but also to oneself.

Do you conduct a lot of conversations with yourself?

I am a person who thinks a lot, maybe too much. Sensitivity is my Achilles’ heel, I take things to heart, cry over everything. My mother always tells me to take that as an advantage, and that because of that I can also listen and give.

Mother knows.

Yes, maybe one day I will go in the direction of the therapeutic professions, but at the moment I am moving away from studies a little, I think there are so many options and I feel like chewing off something else. I’m really young, I just came out of the oven.

So there are no plans for the future?

I always have another small plan, I realize small dreams and at the moment I am saving up money for the next dream.

Which is?

I don’t know, but you always need money for dreams.

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