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Tales from the Tombs of Israel

One of public radio’s Savvy Travelers couldn’t fathom what brought so many pilgrims to ancient rabbis’ crypts. Then something happened.

This article appeared in our October 2004 issue. It certainly seemed odd. People who were otherwise sane, intelligent, and credible would travel to the part of northern Israel known as the Galilee to pray at the tomb of the first-century rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel. Afterward, they would rapturously report that they had met their soul mates and gotten married. Since I was in the vicinity of the tomb, I decided to check out the departed matchmaker. Fortified with a healthy dose of skepticism, I entered the tsyun, a low, white washed building made of local rocks, cement, earth, and stones. Inside, the sepulcher was draped in dark velvet. On the women’s side — men and women are separated in Orthodox Judaism — some prayed earnestly from Hebrew prayer books and several deposited coins and bills into charity tins. Some left offerings, including bright-colored cloth, silk and chiffon scarves, plastic hair ornaments, and underpants. Underpants? I walked back outside more amused than inspired. When my husband, Paul, returned from the men’s side, I asked what had happened. “Nothing,” he responded. …

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