Wednesday, July 30, 1997, 13:15, Jerusalem. Petra woke up on the „wrong“ side of the street opposite the Machaneh Yehuda Market. She was expecting guests from Canada in the evening, and during a break in her work, she wanted to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables. She was caught in the double attack by two Hamas terrorists, in which 16 people were killed, 168 severely wounded, Petra among them. Today, her serious wounds to arms, hands and face have healed, thanks to her iron discipline and good medical care, although she had to fight for five long years in order to return to life.
In 1951, Berlin had not yet been physically divided. The Federal Republic had been in existence since May 2, 1949 and the GDR since October 7 of the same year. Until the final border would be established between the two German States, including extensive barriers, the border could still be crossed in both directions.
West Berlin was still licking its wounds. The healing process started very slowly. Changes were felt at first in the inner city, and then slowly the progressing normalization could also be seen in the outer districts. In the GDR, the „World Youth Festival“ was held again in August 1951. Ernst Honecker opened the proceedings by describing what would be presented as a propaganda festival for the Soviet Union. „Long live the leader and banner bearer of world peace, the teacher of youth in all countries, our beloved Josef Stalin“.
The district of Charlottenburg, which had become part of the city in 1920, includes the favored quarters around the ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Kudamm, the Zoo Railway Station, the exhibition grounds and the now lively region around Kant Street. Jewish life also took place within the triangle between Fasanen Street, Joachimstaler Street and Pestalozzi Street.
It was in this awakening city that Petra Heldt was born in 1951 and graduated from high school in 1971.
This was the period of the 1968 student unrest, which swept over practically the whole of Europe. A revolt against the establishment, against the outdated relic of the Weimar Republic. But also against downplaying the issue of the guilt of their parents‘ generation during the Nazi period. Petra is not certain that she was influenced by those subversions. „But would I have read my Bakunin outside this period? I don’t know“.
The churches also hesitantly started a new orientation, which originated in Latin America. Accepting the criticism of the ruling church hierarchies, the Liberation Theology shifted its focus on the state of the oppressed population to the forefront of the Exegesis. There were excommunications and preaching interdictions. Often, following the change, priests filled political positions in order to strengthen the demands of people with awakening awareness from dictatorships and church authorities.
The criticism which was the spirit of the time seems to have been so stimulating for the young intellectual woman that, during her university studies, she took the time she needed to find her way and her actual objective, and to widen her knowledge. It may not always have been immediately evident how she would absorb all that towards her objective. What was the practical use of knowing how to decipher Sumerian cuneiform script? Or Aramaic, or earlier letters? In historical Palestine Aramaic was the vernacular and it appears in the writings of the Talmud and the Midrash, as well as in some of today’s Jewish prayers.
Her studies led her to the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg (comparative religious studies and languages of antiquity in the Levant Region), to Amsterdam and finally to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Petra did not see her future as the pastor of a community or a school. From the start of her studies, she saw her future in research. Ordination as a protestant pastor was never an issue. Would an ordained pastor who is at the same time a researcher fit better into the picture of the official church than someone who acted as a researcher only, thereby maintaining her autonomy? In any event, in 1985, she bowed down and was ordained in Berlin.
Petra had been living in Israel since 1979. She studied Talmud and Midrash with one of the most important German speaking rabbis of that time, Tovia Ben Chorin, and from him she learned about many daily writings such as the Siddur (the everyday prayer book) and the Machzor (the prayer book for the Jewish High Holidays).
At that time, she also met her husband, Malcom Lowe. At the time Malcom, together with his colleague and friend David Flusser, was investigating the „synoptic problematics“ of the three early Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. This field of religious and bible studies is about researching to what extent and which of the three gospels was used as the source for the two others. Early Christian written changes in formulation, order and emphasis only allow a vague idea of the orally transmitted story behind them. Uncovering it is exciting and shows a completely different picture of early Christianity.
In 1980, Petra presented her master’s thesis at the Church University in Berlin. Its title was: The Reading of “ Ani” and “Ebion” in the Writings of Qumran. Both terms appear several times in the fragments of the Qumran rolls and are often used in the meaning of „poor“. The Judeo-Christians around the year 100 CE called themselves „Ebionites“ to differentiate themselves from the „Nazarenes“. The name which at first was meant to be a proud description of the group, fell into disrepute. The reference to Jesus who had a very special relationship with the poor faded into the background. They were looked upon critically if not worse by their neighbors. Though they considered themselves to be Jews, Jews did not accept them as such. They saw Jesus as the Messiah and were against animal sacrifices, which were usual until the end of the Temple period. Christians of non-Jewish origin rejected them for being against Paul’s missionary work and not recognizing Christ’s atoning death as such. The Last Supper, a central point in Christian theology, became a Jesus commemoration.
In 2002, she obtained her PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after presenting her thesis: The Reading of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians 4, 21-31 in the Writings of the Early Church. A Study in Patristic Exegesis. The fact that Petra chose this subject is not surprising against the background of her master thesis. One of the main topics of her research focused on the Jews‘ influence on early Christianity. One of the significant people at the time was Paul, who used to perform intensive missionary work during his travels and tried to counter the influence of Judeo-Christian missionaries. In his epistles, he insists on the fact that Christian Salvation can only be attained through the Christ’s expiatory sacrifice, thereby opposing contrary tendencies in the early Christian community.
We need to consider Petra’s professional background in at least a few points in order to understand her aspirations for the present and the future.
She has been living in Jerusalem with her husband Malcom for 38 years. This is more than half her life up to now. The couple does not live in East Jerusalem as the mainstream would expect, but in the middle of old Jerusalem. Arnona, founded in 1938, is one of the southern parts of the city. In 1967, the war front was in the middle of the area, which then had to be abandoned. Arnona is now on its way to becoming one of the suburbs very much in demand. Here, at the highest point in town, the air is simply better, the view down to the Dead Sea unbeatable. Somewhere in its center a large building plot is kept open, which is supposed to be where the US American Embassy will be constructed.
The neighborhood has a mixed population, orthodox and secular Jews live in classic 1980s buildings. Nobody minds Petra playing the piano or „singing so loudly that the walls shake“. The apartment is the charming retreat of two pleasant scientists. There are books everywhere; the shelves are often accessible from both front and back. No enlightening literature can be found. Malcom looks for a certain book and finds it easily. But the books are not overwhelming, on the contrary, they are tempting and invite one to rummage; regrettably there is not enough time.
Petra does not want to look back at the past. „It is of no importance whatsoever“, she says. She looks forward.
She considers it her mission to restore to their rightful place the correct images of Israel which have been shifted in the minds of young, easily manipulated people. To make the close connection between the ancient Christian and Jewish religious cultures visible again. Those connections are further lost by the fact that official Christian visitors no longer have Israel on their program or, if they do, only marginally. Those visits are nowadays made almost exclusively in Judaea and Samaria. One of the most dangerous troublemakers is the Arab pastor Mitri Raheb, who denies Christ’s Jewish roots. His activities are strictly anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Nevertheless, he succeeds repeatedly to persuade visitors of all political persuasions of the truth of his intentions. Here again corrective care is needed insofar as any visitors get to Israel at all.
Petra travels tirelessly on speaking trips, training sessions, discussions, and of course, there are her publications. Her deepest wish is that Israel will never become a Muslim-influenced terror State. The latest UNESCO resolution, denying Israel any connection to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is a step in the wrong direction. As is the recognition of historical sites in Jewish history as being „pre-Palestinian“ or even „Palestinian“.
„Antisemitism in the form of Anti-Israelism“, as per Petra’s gloomy prediction, „is now growing in every direction and, like each generation, ours will have to stop this anti-biblical spirit. Jewish and Christian voices warn about the Muslim demand to destroy Israel. The Shoah is the ultimate reminder to protect life. Wherever the Church Authorities are failing, individual Christians must fill the void“.
This is a mission requiring much strength, in particular because the official church opinion may not agree with everything.
Friday, April 14, 2017, 12:45, Jerusalem. Jews are celebrating Passover, Christians are observing Good Friday. Jerusalem is expecting over 150,000 visitors for the weekend. Hannah Bladon, an exchange student from Birmingham, will shortly complete her time in Jerusalem. In the crowded tram, she leaves her seat to a pregnant woman. Next to her stands her murderer. Hannah will not survive the terrorist attack.
The attack on her own life in 1997 did not cause Petra to be traumatized. But the Good Friday attack shook her profoundly: Hannah was a student of hers.
„Hannah was one of the few students with whom I had built a special relationship. What she did at the end of her life, when she gave her seat to a pregnant woman, that was Hannah, always helpful. I am so shaken by her death; I cannot yet believe it is true:“
But still, Petra does not look backwards: she looks to the future, where she feels her mission lies.
©esther scheiner, Israel
© translated by: Translation International, Herzliya