Jerusalem Syndrome

Jerusalem Syndrome

September 30, 2009 16:02


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He called himself David and spoke English. But he had no passport, no ID of any kind when they picked him up, singing to himself at the Wailing Wall. He talked about a great light shining everywhere, angels talking to him, a feeling of holiness. At the hospital, the doctors diagnosed him with the Jerusalem Syndrome, that psychosis that descends, sometimes, on first-time visitors to the Holy City. Most of them were Protestants with no psychiatric history, who often thought they were Jesus or were talking to him, but occasionally there was a Jew. Soon the light had dispersed and David sounded eccentric but more or less rational, insisting he was just an American Jewish tourist. However, he refused to say where he was from or how to contact his family. That was all Michal knew about him. She wasn't a psychiatric social worker, just a regular one, but she often worked with patients who were about to be released from the hospital. They were sent to her office at the clinic in the center of town and she helped them figure out their next step. She imagined from what she had heard that David would be compact, dark, intense, but he was fair, extremely tall and thin, moving with a slight lack of coordination. She wondered if his long-limbed body had been threatening to people when he wandered the city so unhinged. His expression reminded her of a children's book illustration she hadn't seen in years, a picture of a bewildered-looking Hansel, lost in the forest. David sat down and looked at her, his face pink like a baby's. He pushed a lock of colorless hair away from his forehead, in an almost effeminate gesture. She noticed that the lock was singed. "Hello, David," she said in her most calming voice. "It's good to meet you." She was tired and hadn't been planning to come in that day, but she was determined to be helpful. The army had announced that that afternoon it would be evacuating the illegal hilltop settlement on the West Bank where she and her husband, Yehuda, lived in a trailer next to a few other couples. Since she was undergoing another fertility treatment cycle, Yehuda didn't want her to get into the middle of the protests. She felt she should be there to watch, though. This was the third settlement they had been chased off, but Michal, Yehuda and the others who lived in trailers on the wind-swept hillside took it lightly. There were other hills. "So, you're the real thing," David said, as he took in her long dark brown skirt, matching jacket and the black scarf that covered her hair. His hands, she noticed, did not stop moving, his long fingers playing with the buttons on a white shirt that must have been nice when it was new, brushing and briefly picking his nose. "Am I?" There was something strangely familiar and charming about his voice. "What do you mean?" "You're like one of those Jewish girl nuns." He chewed a fingernail, then bit into the skin next to it. She laughed, lifting a hand to her scarf. "How did you burn your hair?" she asked. "With a cigarette," he said. "By the way, can I smoke in here?" His fingers rubbed his shirt pocket and she noticed he carried a pack of cigarettes. "No, but if you want, we can talk outside." "It's OK." "I don't mind," she said. "No, you're too skinny, you'd get cold out there. Why is it so cold here in the winter? I'm from New York, but this is the coldest f***ing winter I've ever gone through," he said, switching hands to gnaw on his thumbnail. "People don't heat the insides of buildings here like they do in America," she explained, thrilled, somehow, that he had said "f***ing" and hadn't apologized for it. He was being himself with her. And he had told her he was from New York, before she even asked. "I'm really psyched that you speak English, you know? I'm trying to learn Hebrew but..." He pulled at the singed lock of hair as if he were trying to tear off the burned part. "It's not the easiest language," she said. Watching his restless fingers was getting distracting. One hand went back to his nose. She wanted to take his hands in hers and squeeze them until he calmed down. "Do you speak it really well?" "I grew up here. My parents are American, but I was raised in Tel Aviv." "Got it." His fingers rested in his pocket and she felt relieved. "So how are you doing?" she asked. He raised his eyebrows, making a comic face. "Could be bettah," he said in a mock-Yiddish accent. "The place you're living... " she began. "It's OK. I'd like to go back to having my own place, but it's hard right now. You know, no money, don't speak Hebrew, just had a nervous breakdown..." She smiled. "Do you want to tell me what happened?" she asked. "Uh, sure. You mean, the whole Jerusalem Syndrome thing? That's what they called it at the hospital," he said. One of his hands was playing with his belt buckle. She glanced down briefly and then looked away. His other hand reached under his collar and scratched furiously, as if he had a mosquito bite. Again, she restrained herself from telling him to stop. "Yeah, ever since I came here, almost from the moment I got off the plane, I started to feel something. Like there was something that wanted me here. I had to do something, but I didn't know what." He began scratching his elbow, through the shirt. "I just started walking around Jerusalem, mostly the Old City. And it got closer and closer, this - thing - that wanted me. And finally, I stopped ignoring it and tried to embrace it back. And, to be honest, after that, I don't remember much." "What kind of thing was it that wanted you?" "The light. Something inside the light. Know what I mean?" He rubbed the tip of his nose, which became red, but at least this time he didn't pick it. "Maybe you can explain some more." She thought, though, that she did understand a little. Sometimes there was a light in the city, strange and thrilling, whether during the cold days of winter or the heavy heat of summer. It seemed like a presence, as if someone were about to speak to her, to make contact. She had never mentioned it to anyone. "But you know," he said, one hand gripping his chin, rubbing a patch of fine blond hair where he hadn't shaved well. "Don't you?" "About the light?" "Sometimes it's there for you, too, isn't it? I can tell. It's in your eyes. When people see it, I can see in their eyes." His hands dropped to his sides, briefly at rest. He stared at her. "In their eyes?" "Yeah, the doctors can't see it, but there's a cleaning lady who comes in the afternoon. She has a Russian accent, and when I look at her, I know. She can see the light, too. She used to say something to me, one of the nurses said it was 'God bless you.'" "Do you see it right now?" she said. "You tell me. You know." He wagged a finger at her, and she saw that there was blood where he had bitten the nail down. "Come on, you know." It was an overcast day and the haunting light he was talking about was something she noticed when it was clear, usually when she was alone, walking down an empty street. If she really did know what he was talking about. "The light in Jerusalem does have a special quality," she said after a minute, knowing she shouldn't encourage him in this train of thought. "It's OK," he said. "You don't have to talk about it with me." He wagged the bloody, bitten finger again and said, in a sing-song tone of voice, "I know you know." She wasn't sure what to do so she nodded. "They found you by the Wailing Wall, singing to yourself. You had been there for days, apparently." "Dr. Rosen and Dr. Bar-El told me." "Why don't you want to go home?" "I'm not saying I would never go home. It's just that my family, my parents are very old, they're Holocaust survivors, from Hungary. It's a weird story. I grew up thinking we were Christian, we always went to church on Christmas and Easter. It was the Catholic Church a few blocks away, where all the Puerto Rican families from Amsterdam Avenue went and so my mother called it a 'Proletarian Church.' For years, I thought it was a denomination, you know, Presbyterian, Proletarian." She laughed. "So they never talked about their childhood?" A deja-vu feeling came over her. Had she seen a scene like this in a movie? "Someone in Hungary died and left them some money. I didn't know we still had relatives there. It turned out the relatives got this money when there was that whole lawsuit with the Swiss banks. I always thought my parents were hiding something. When the money came from Hungary, I couldn't stop asking questions. Finally the whole story came out. There were so many things that had never made sense, you know? My father's father was Christian, and my father hid out with an uncle who was Christian. With my mother, it was a convent, you know, the old Jews-in-the-basement thing. She was even sent to Israel after the war was over, she was so f***in' Jewish. Of course, when I said I wanted to come here, she told me it was crazy. To her, Israel was a horrible place, she never would have gone to Israel if she'd had a choice, so she left as soon as she could." He folded his hands, a kind of gesture of supplication. Now that she couldn't see the distracting bloody fingernails, she noticed that his hands were wrinkled and his fingers looked old, much older than his face and his voice. "You know, I could really use that cigarette about now," he said. She stood up, reaching for her parka, and they went outside. David had no coat other than the frayed tweed jacket he wore over the stained white shirt. He adjusted his narrow orange and black scarf so it covered his neck. "You don't like coats?" she asked. As he fumbled through his pockets looking for matches, he said, "I always like to have a good coat. If I can't have a good coat, I won't wear anything." His hands were shaking as he lit the cigarette. Michal could easily imagine how he had burned his hair. After he managed to get the cigarette going, he looked at her with childish satisfaction. His greenish eyes had a strong, level gaze. He seemed to see into her. When she became religious she had always thought she would find a rabbi who could see who she really was, who could guide her. As she spoke to David, she realized that the gentle, knowing look in his eyes was what she always hoped for when she talked to a rabbi. "David, did you ever have a moment like that or a time like that before, where you felt light, holiness, those kinds of feelings?" she asked, remembering to do her job. He exhaled smoke. "Oh, you mean, did I ever have a psychotic break before?" he asked. "I didn't realize you knew the jargon so well," she said. "Yeah, sure. I think I did have a break once before. I know now you'll really think I'm nuts, but when I was about seven, I suddenly had this moment when I realized that all my life I had been living in someone else's dream. That my life wasn't real. I couldn't lose that feeling, I went around with it for, what? Weeks, months, years. It was like there was a light shining straight at my eyes all the time, making me squint and cry." "What made it start?" "We were rehearsing a school play, the Christmas play. We were all up on stage and the light glared in my eyes and that was it, you know." "And how did it end?" "It just gradually became less intense, and I learned to live with it." She chewed it over, thinking that his memory of a seven-year-old's confusion did not really sound like psychosis to her. "We're everywhere, right?" he said. He was careful, as he exhaled, to make sure he didn't blow smoke in her face. In spite of her disgust for cigarettes, she felt attracted to the warmth of the bluish puffs. "Us?" "People who see things. What happened was really, when I got to Jerusalem, I kept thinking of that song, you know, the Tom Petty song: 'I won't back down/I'll stand my ground.' Or something like that..." He paused and looked at a spot somewhere in the distance, moving his mouth without speaking, as if he were going over the lyrics. After a few seconds, frowning, he said, "Stand my ground. Yeah." "I don't know that song," she said. "They played it all the time after 9/11, you know? It was supposed to be a big f***-you to the terrorists. You pass a coffee shop in New York, you hear, 'Won't back down. Stand my ground.' It's on the radio. I'm on the bus, somebody's playing it on a Walkman. I'm hearing it and hearing it." He bobbed his head, as if he were listening to music. His lips mouthed the lyrics again. "So David..." She needed to ask him more, to find out how he was feeling now. "Stand my ground!" he said, smiling. She noticed that his teeth were nicotine yellow. "I wanted to ask..." "When I came here, I knew: Stand my ground. Too much backing down, you know? All your life, you can pretend it's not there, the light, the things you see, but here, it's like: No. I won't back down. You know? Stand my ground." "I don't really know." "Yes, you do." "No, I don't," she said. "Do!" They laughed. "What about you?" he asked. "What about me?" "Any psychotic breaks, psychiatric history I should know?" He took another drag of the cigarette, furrowing his brow and cocking his head at a mock-serious angle, as if he were a therapist. In general, her policy was not to answer personal questions from patients but she needed to open up to him. "I was once very down," she said. "I wasn't hospitalized, but now maybe I think I should have been." "You were depressed?" he asked. "I was sad all the time." She leaned against the wall, feeling the cold stone wall against her back. He stooped down further, so that his face was level with hers. "It's not so different from what happened to you, really. I sort of lost my faith in the secular world. It was as if my parents were covering something up, too. They taught me all my life that to have a successful career was the be-all and end-all. My father's a lawyer, my mother's a psychologist. When they go to hear the Israel Philharmonic, it's like they're worshiping at the holy temple of North Tel Aviv. When I realized that it wasn't like that, that there were all kinds of things that went on outside that world, I went through a lot." He was staring at her strangely, as if he couldn't understand what she was saying. She felt disappointed at his apparent lack of sympathy. "I'm telling you more than you wanted to know," she said, embarrassed. She felt a twinge in her stomach. The first two times she had had the fertility treatments, she had thought this meant she really was pregnant. This time, she knew the cramp meant nothing. Tomorrow she would get the results of today's blood test, but she already knew: It hadn't worked again. She felt none of the dizziness, breast tenderness or any of the other signs of an altered state that were the early signs of pregnancy that she had read about. With difficulty, she suppressed an urge to mention her fertility treatment to David. "Your voice - listening to you is like being drowned in butterscotch," he said, the light behind his eyes intensifying as he clicked back into the conversation. She felt herself blush. "I'm not sure that's such a good thing." A boy she had slept with during the army told her once that the only beautiful thing about her was her voice. "It is if you like butterscotch." She looked at her feet, as if they were on a date. "One day, I just felt that my life wasn't worth living. I didn't have any confidence, any feeling of ..." "Yeah, I know, I get that, too. But I mean, with your beliefs, I would think..." "That's when I got my beliefs," she answered. "That's when it started." "When what started?" She pushed back her sleeve a tiny bit and showed him the Rabbi Nachman of Breslav sticker she had wrapped around her wrist to make a bracelet. It read: "Na, Nach, Nachma, Nachman, Me'Uman." The chant. "I kept noticing this everywhere. It's a reminder of Rabbi Nachman." "Rabbi who?" he asked. "Nachman. He was the rabbi of the Breslav Hassidim. He died hundreds of years ago, and they never found anyone who could take his place. He was such a good man, so holy. They say that these words, his name, have a power, a mystical power. I began to say them. I got a prayer book and started to pray. It centered me. I had always been so anxious, I chewed on my fingernails, like you. I couldn't sleep. And then when I started to study the rabbi's teachings, it all stopped, I became completely calm. At the beginning, the very beginning, it was all a little hard to swallow. My mother, the Tel Aviv psychologist, kept trying to analyze me out of it. And then I stopped thinking so hard, I let my intuitive understanding lead me. And it took me - here." "I wish I could get to a place like that." "You can, just say the words. Feel them in your heart." She coached him in stammering them out a few times. He smiled. "I could get used to this," he said. "You can!" "I will," he said. "If it will lead me to the kind of peace you have, I..." He stamped out the cigarette then lit another one. "Where do you live, by the way?" "On a settlement called Kochav Tamar. It's named for a little girl who was killed by terrorists on the road last year." She explained a little more about the nature of the settlement. She could see that she had stirred something in him. "I've never been there, to the West Bank." "We call it Judea. But the thing is, it's being dismantled today, right now. It's an illegal settlement." "But you won't give up," he said, looking worried. "No, we'll just move to another place." "Don't back down. Stand your ground," he said. Then, after a minute, he asked, "But what about, you know, the Palestinians?" "I don't know," she said. "I don't really know anything about the Palestinians. I don't hate them, if that's what you mean. I don't know how everything is supposed to work. I just know there is something true about this place, Jerusalem, the hills around it." "I want to see it." "See it?" "Where you live." She was supposed to send him straight back to the hospital. She paused, not wanting to refuse him. "C'mon, I'll just help you move your stuff," he said. "My husband and our friends will be resisting the army," she explained. "It's not as if I could show you around. There'll be demonstrators, mostly from other settlements, to give us moral support." "Then I'll give you moral support, too." "And then you'll go back to the hospital?" "Then I'll go back." The clouds parted briefly and a stream of weak yellow sunlight lit the street. It was a sign, a perfect moment. The day seemed to be filled with holiness, and some of it was reaching out to David, drawing him in. "All right," she said. His fingers were icy as he stooped down, took hold of her hand, and brought it to his lips. "I'm back in the saddle again/Out where a friend is a friend..." They got the bus driver who always listened to country music. Hearing it, they laughed, but said very little. The hills, under swirls of gray clouds, looked especially beautiful. "Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above/Don't fence me in..." "Out where you live, you have a community?" he said. "We believe in the same things," she said. "So there are other people like you there. People who can see things?" "I'm not sure." She imagined the tiny settlement as kind of a college dormitory, with lots of giggling and sharing clothes. She liked her neighbors but it was nothing like that. "It's people like you. I can feel them getting nearer," he said, smiling. His teeth were good, she noticed, underneath the yellow stains. "Let me ride to the ridge where the West commences/Gaze upon the moon till I lose my senses ..." The smile stayed fixed on his face. He mumbled something, which she assumed was, "Don't back down/Stand my ground." They were silent until David asked her what kind of tree it was lining the road. She told him. "Olive trees," he said. "That is so f***ing amazing." "Let me ride in the wide open country I love/Don't fence me in..." Now she could hear him as he whispered, "Na, Nach, Nachma..." They got off the bus and were confronted by chaos. Hundreds of chanting protesters had made a ring around the trailers. Reporters and TV crews were running in all directions, while soldiers manned bulldozers pointed at the trailers. The protesters were chanting, "Na, Nach, Nachma, Nachman, Me'Uman." The entrance to the area had been barricaded off and a soldier demanded to see some identification before letting them through. As she fished in her purse, David broke free and ran off. The soldier shouted and she watched as David's long limbs came to life, picking up speed. Avoiding a knot of soldiers, he came up behind one of the bulldozers, which had just started to creep forward, and then leaped, throwing himself down in front of it. This time the shaft of sunlight peeking through the clouds was a full-blown golden haze. It illuminated David's singed hair for a minute as the bulldozer rolled forward. She ran toward him and thought she could hear his voice, hoarse and distinct from the others, continuing the chant just one moment more before he fell silent for good.• The writer is the movie critic for The Jerusalem Post and has just finished her first novel.

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