Worthy heirs of Isaiah and Amos

Jerusalem's timeless identity means that its past endures within us as if it is happening today.

By YEHUDA AVNER
October 4, 2006 21:06
Worthy heirs of Isaiah and Amos

jerusalem sunset 88. (photo credit: )

Jerusalem! Its individuality is unique. Something deep stirred within me when I first entered Jerusalem at Succot time almost 60 years ago. I didn't know what to call it then; I don't know what to call it now. It has the depth of an old masterpiece whose simplicity veils an immense sophistication. And like great music, its composition - the ancient and the modern, the religious and the secular, the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, and their multiple tones and variations, all somehow synchronize into an incongruous harmony. I first set eyes on Jerusalem at the ending of the day, when the lowering sun cast vivid rays across the sky, aflame with scarlet and crimson. My Manchester eyes, attuned to cloud and rain, had never seen such a sky, and by the time I reached the city center, the masonry seemed to suck up the hues, giving the walls a translucent, golden appearance. Jerusalem is an epic. It is the wellspring of a civilization - the civilization of a small people with a vast experience that extends over a huge expanse of time and of space - across 4,000 years in time and throughout all the continents in space. People pretend all human beings are very much alike. They are not. People differ; civilizations differ. Things happen in one country that could not happen in another country. In our merciless and unforgiving region people do things to one another, terrible things that could never happen in Jerusalem. Without Jerusalem's civilization the spiritual history of the world would be stagnant. JERUSALEM'S identity is timeless. It stretches into the future and into the past. There is something in it that persists like a living creature. What can the Jerusalem of 2006 have in common with the Jerusalem of 1906? But then, what have you in common with the child of six whose photograph your mother keeps on the sideboard - nothing, except that you happen to be the same person. Jerusalem's timeless identity means that its past endures within us as if it is happening today, in the present tense. Were Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai or Rabbi Tarfon or Rabbi Meir to walk into a Jerusalem hotel now, today, many a guest would instantly rise to receive them as living personalities whom they have known all their lives. And they would want to ask them many questions that would be profoundly pertinent to them and to their future. Historians say that Jerusalem is the most bitterly disputed city in history, that more blood has been shed for Jerusalem than for any other spot on earth. Century after century armies have fought to conquer and subjugate it: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Syrians, the Romans, the Saracens, the Franks, the Arabs, the Turks, the Europeans, and again the Arabs. Nonetheless, throughout its 3,000-year-long history Jerusalem has been capital to no one but the Jews. HAS ANYBODY ever heard of a daughter or a son of a Saladin who fasts each year in memory of ancient Jerusalem's anguish? Has anybody ever heard of a son of a Crusader who breaks a glass at his wedding ceremony in memory of ancient Jerusalem's anguish? We did not choose Jerusalem as our capital city. History chose Jerusalem as our capital city. King David chose Jerusalem as our capital city. When visitors enter the city they immediately have the sensation of breathing different air. Dozens of happenings conspire to give this feeling: the fruit is tastier, the currency is flimsier, the sky is bluer, the building sites are plentier, the King George Avenue-Jaffa Road-Ben-Yehuda Street triangle is messier, the warren of snaking markets, vaulted passageways, slender lanes, hidden nooks and shadowy courtyards of the Old City are busier. The crowds in the streets, with their miscellaneous hues and fashions, are different from the crowds back home. The diversity is startling. Just take the varieties of pieties with their elaborate kippa codes: the knitted ones and the crocheted ones, the velvet ones and the fabric ones, the leather ones and the silk ones, the bowl-like ones and the saucer-like ones, the disc-like ones and the pimple-like ones, not to speak of the wheel-like shtreimel and the satin caftan and the knee breeches which would have appealed to the fashion sense of 17th-century Polish noblemen. All display lifestyles and allegiances as openly as carrying banners. JERUSALEM IS changing. And like everything else, the seeds of change can only sprout in certain ways. A seed may grow or not grow, but a potato never grows into a tomato. Some alternatives are possible, others not. Thus, by definition, Jerusalem will always be a yeshiva world capital, a place of Talmud scholarship where students don't study and teachers don't teach: everybody learns. Vast in size and encyclopedic in scope, the Talmud's compelling disputes over the meticulously precise meaning of its legal texts, peppered with vivid legend and lore, enthralls and engrosses countless numbers the world over. Within haredi society it is a comprehensive culture and way of life. The predicament is that this self-walled, almost non-income-earning Jerusalem haredi yeshiva community has so burgeoned that the city's tax base is shockingly depleted. Jerusalem is the poorest city in the land. Readers might want to have a word with the mayor about this, familiar as he is with haredi life. And whilst you're at it you might mention, perhaps, the excessive property taxes the rest of us have to pay, and our littered streets, and the wretched garbage collection. But all this fades into insignificance once you gaze upon the colossal antique blocks of the Wall which look almost fresh from the quarry. Place a kvittel in a crack, behold the bouquets of caper bushes sprouting in the higher crevices from which flocks of starlings take wing, and rest your head on one of those old Kotel stones and inhale the aroma of the ages. Jerusalem then becomes proof that wishes and dreams can come true. If your mood is right something profound might stir. I don't know what to call it - a flutter of invisible wings, perhaps? The whisper of Godly poetry? Whether one believes in Divine purpose or in inscrutable circumstance one might be moved to marvel at Jewish time without end, be awakened to an awareness of ancient ancestry. For that's what Jerusalem is: family - a dysfunctional family maybe, with a goodly share of black sheep and cupboards bursting with skeletons, but family nevertheless - a caring and generous and big-hearted family, worthy heirs mostly of Isaiah and Amos. So, however jostled you are on Jerusalem's sidewalks, short-changed by taxi drivers, pushed about in queues, pestered by shopkeepers; hate it or laugh at it, Jerusalem is you and me. You can never get away from it. The Wall, the Rova, Mahaneh Yehuda, Mea She'arim, Rehavia, Talbieh, the view from the posh hotel and the apartment windows, all these are yours. They have entered your soul. You belong to them, they to you. Which is why Succot visitors to Jerusalem - or to anywhere in Israel for that matter - are never guests; they are home-comers. They are forever Yerushalmim. The writer is a veteran diplomat. avner28@netvision.net.il


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