JERUSALEM — Moshe Ben-Meir, director of the dead-letter office, takes care not to make fun of the mail that ends up here, but the latest letter from Jeremy, who sometimes signs himself as "Jesus," had set him off.
"You see," he said, handing an envelope to a visitor, "the most--how shall we say it?--peculiar letters we get are addressed to God."
Indeed, Jeremy, a regular, had addressed the letter to Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God, and had begun it, "Dear Dad."
"Please," he went on, "give money to the account of anyone who works for peace, freedom, good will, peace between Israel and Palestine, economic equilibrium and the environment."
" Meshuga ," Ben-Meir murmured in Yiddish. "Nuts."
Ben-Meir's job is perhaps unique to Jerusalem. His department regularly receives letters to God--and to Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Solomon and King David, as well as the "Emperor of Israel."
The letters are written in a variety of languages and come from places as far away as Australia, Argentina and Cameroon. When a letter to God is sent to an address in New York, the post office there will likely forward it to Israel.
"Other post offices assume that God is here--and that I know where to find him," Ben-Meir said, tossing Jeremy's letter on his cluttered desk.
Some letters to God are addressed to the Western Wall, where Jewish worshipers often place written prayers and pleas to God in the masonry. Others just write to Jerusalem, or, in the case of some Christians, to Bethlehem. A few try direct addresses, such as "Seventh Heaven, Seat of Honor" or "120 Good Day St., Garden of Heaven."
"Sometimes, people don't bother to put on a stamp," Ben-Meir said with a sigh. "They think God will pay the postage due, I suppose."
Letters addressed to God compel Ben-Meir to make a minor bureaucratic choice: how to stamp the envelope.
"Should it be marked 'Insufficient Address' or 'Addressee Unknown'?" he asked. "I don't know."
Research into Jewish religious law was needed to determine whether Ben-Meir and his staff are authorized to open mail. It turned out that a 16th-Century rabbi had lifted a longstanding ban on reading the mail of others so long as the intrusion was meant to speed delivery.
Many of the letters to God deal with everyday problems and are as innocent as a child's prayer. "Dear God, Shalom," said one from a Jewish writer from Israel. "I write this letter after deep thought. Please in your kindness and when you decide, give me the power to study the profession of chef. Your loyal servant."
Other appeals are more ambitious. For example: "Dear God, When will I die and become Shirley Ben-Mordechai (an Israeli beauty queen)?"
Occasionally, there is a simple letter of devotion: "Dear God, I love you so much, I can't stand the separation of being on this Earth. Love, Melanie."
But more than a few reveal a somewhat disturbing identification with the deity.
"Dear Dad," wrote Jeremy, who sends a letter almost every week from various cities in the United States. "Happy Father's Day. To the Angel of Death: Pass Over unless I say not to."
One letter asked God to punish Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir because of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Another wanted Marcel Lefevbre, the traditionalist Roman Catholic bishop in France, defrocked because the writer suspected that he hates Jews.
That God can best be reached in or through Jerusalem is, of course, an ancient selling point for the city. Before Hebrew tribes conquered the city, it was the home of a Canaanite deity, Salem, to which the Hebrew name of Jerusalem apparently refers.
The new Jewish arrivals established their central temple on a high point in the city from where smoke from burnt offerings is supposed to rise straight to heaven, no matter which way the winds blow.
Most subsequent conquerors of Jerusalem maintained the Temple Mount as a place with a special connection to heaven. After destroying the temple in 70 AD and putting down a revolt against the empire, the Romans set up a shrine to Jupiter on the site.
Later, during their periodic domination of the city, Christians and Muslims built their own places of worship on the site. Mohammed was said to have embarked on a journey to heaven from a stone outcropping there. A few revisionist Christian pilgrims held that Christ was crucified there.
With modern Israeli control of the city, Jewish fundamentalists have demanded the razing of the two Muslim mosques still on the grounds, which Arab worshipers call the Noble Sanctuary. The militants want a third temple built to renew the practice of animal sacrifice to God. The authorities have firmly resisted such calls, if for no other reason than to avoid an uproar in Islam.