A whole lot of ink has been spilled about Jerusalem. After British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem, a comprehensive masterpiece on the city, it’s a wonder anyone would think there was more to be said about the city.
So why read Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem? Because it picks up where the history books leave off, providing both broad and microscopic (and microcosmic) views of the holy city. Author Sarah Tuttle-Singer, the social media editor for The Times of Israel, weaves together personal and political dramas, using humor and heartbreak to compose a love story to a city that we all thought we had read enough about.
Those who follow the social media maven’s escapades will find Tuttle-Singer’s writing style familiar. Her prose is earnest, eager, friendly and intimate – and it’s unmistakable. Her debut offering is based largely on her experiences of living in each quarter of the Old City over the period of a year.
Tuttle-Singer is often lambasted on social media sites by right-wingers who accuse her (among other things) of wearing rose-colored glasses when interacting with and writing about Arabs. Yes, she writes warmly about the Muslim shopkeeper who gave her daughter her first Star of David necklace, but she also addresses other Arab shopkeepers whose stalls aren’t far from her Arab jeweler friend.
Of the stabbing attack on Al-Wad/Hagai Street in the Old City in 2015, which killed Aharon Benita and Nehemia Lavi, she writes: “I thought about those two women watching the lives eke out of their husbands while they lay there mewling on the stones and the merchants stood around cursing them and spitting on them.” She writes of the “family in Itamar that was butchered in their bed,” and of her own experiences as a teenager being stoned by Arab kids probably her own age at the Damascus Gate. She writes of her sexual assaults at the hands of a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli. Tuttle-Singer’s book is not blind and boundless optimism; it is clear-eyed and even-keeled.
Perhaps because the sense of smell is so closely tied to memory, Tuttle-Singer loves to describe the scents of various places in Israel. Some are predictable: she writes that the Damascus Gate smells of hot corn and Nutella crepes, and that David Street just inside the Jaffa Gate smells like saffron and old coins.
Outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, she says, smells like halla and za’atar and candle wax. Other descriptions are humorously accurate: Early on in the book, she describes a playground slide smelling like tetanus.
Tuttle-Singer’s mother, who was instrumental in introducing her daughter to Israel by sending her there one summer, died of ovarian cancer before Tuttle-Singer had children of her own. Her mother appears across the pages like a specter and makes the book just as much a daughter’s reckoning with losing a parent as it is about Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered, which is both enjoyable and informative, has one flaw: Often, Tuttle-Singer’s day job as a social media editor pokes through her otherwise beautiful prose. In a moving story about a car crash in which she broke her arm with her mother at the wheel, she writes that “she barreled into a Mercedes who slammed into a Jag, who bumped a Maserati, because #LABaby.” The point comes across, but the Twitter talk is jarring.
Elsewhere, she writes: “We dig into the mountain of chicken and rice and veggies and OMG it was delicious,” and “That desperate need to be seen always for who I wanted to be but sooo wasn’t,” and “like literally threw that motherf****r through a plate glass window.” Perhaps this is just what the memoirs of millennials will look like, but it’s going to take some getting used to.
Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered
By Sarah Tuttle-Singer
272 pages; $24.99