My Word: One city, many Jerusalems

The mundane and the otherworldly coexist in Jerusalem like its mosaic of residents.

‘Each person has a place called Jerusalem,” wrote the poet Natan Yonatan. And everyone’s Jerusalem is different.
I remember my first visit to Jerusalem – as a tourist in 1977. You could still feel the magic of the ascent to the Holy City. Like some traveler in ancient times, I lifted up my eyes to the surrounding hills and was in awe. Passing the burned-out armored trucks – memorials to those killed trying to reach besieged Jerusalem as the modern state was being born – I was humbled.
Today, with the mammoth construction that has taken place, you have to close your eyes, or at least squint, to relate to the ancient landscape.
But the city still has a mystique all its own, and everyone can interpret it as they like. The mundane and the otherworldly coexist in Jerusalem in much the same way as its mosaic of residents: sometimes tensely, sometimes contributing to the unique feeling.
In a column marking Jerusalem Day – the reunification of the city in 1967 – Post columnist Judy Montagu recalled a man in a British hospital finding it hard to believe she came from the Holy City and regularly passes the Valley of the Cross.
During a trip to Taiwan late last year, I met Roman Catholics who checked again and again in English and Chinese that I really came from “Yelusaleng.” Some vendors insisted on giving a discount to a genuine Jerusalemite, in an act of friendliness that made it clear I was far, far away from the market of the Old City.
A classmate who learned Chinese with me at Hebrew University used to tell how she was detained trying to enter an African country in the 1960s. It wasn’t her Israeli passport that caused the immigration officer to pull her over: It was the place of birth listed in it. For him, Jerusalem did not exist in the temporal world.
Admittedly, some countries – including those struggling to impose a peace agreement of some kind – still have a problem recognizing that Jerusalem is in Israel, let alone the capital. But its existence is not in doubt.
“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s pastures green,” wrote British poet William Blake in what was to become best known as the hymn “Jerusalem.” Blake himself would probably find it hard to recognize the England reflected in last week’s general elections, or reconcile my Jerusalem with his dreams. But people still pray to live here. Jews around the world, generation after generation, have concluded the Pessah Seder with the wish: “Next year in Jerusalem, rebuilt!”
It was never a political statement but a statement of faith. It is why I don’t feel I have to apologize for having emigrated from England’s once “green and pleasant land.” I was not escaping from somewhere but drawn to Zion.
It is a united Jerusalem, a City of Peace, we pray for.
The reality, of course, is a very different matter. Those of us who have the privilege of calling the city home know that life here comes at a price – and I’m not thinking in terms of real estate for a change.
The other day I caught myself acting according to a sadly typical Jerusalem instinct: As I heard the siren of a rescue vehicle, I realized that I was automatically waiting to see how many police cars or ambulances were trying to pass. It’s a reflex action left over from the second intifada – the more rescue vehicles, the larger the likelihood that they were racing to the scene of a terror attack.
MY EARLIEST Jerusalem experiences did not define what was to come. The first time I saw the Kotel, the very Middle Eastern commotion – which I did not yet know to call a balagan – so detracted from the spiritual essence of the Western Wall, that I was left with a feeling of having been let down rather than uplifted.
Years later, when I was a student, the proprietor of a store in Karmiel next to that of my parents asked me to say a prayer at the Wall for his brother, a POW in Syria. I approached the towering stones, clutching a note with the name of the missing soldier. To my surprise, I found that I was crying. Like most Israelis, I avoid the term “Wailing Wall,” but it wasn’t the last time I cried there. That prayer, by the way, was answered, but on every subsequent visit I spare a thought for those POWs not yet back home. When my son was born, I cried tears of joy and increased my prayers for peace and good health.
I sometimes wonder if living in Jerusalem was destiny or a trick of fate. As a very new immigrant I toured the city and was taken to see the Hebrew University’s verdant Givat Ram campus. The impression I walked away with was of students sitting on the lawns, a decent swimming pool and the National Library. Irresistible.
Three years later, I registered for studies at the university and came down to earth with a bump. The humanities and social science faculties were located at the Mount Scopus campus, which in 1982 seemed like a concrete jungle compared to Givat Ram. Still, there is a reason that songs have been written praising the view from the top of Har Hatzofim: It has an incomparable splendor, especially in that brief twilight period when Jerusalem turns pink, purple and gold.
I arrived as a student, but stayed on and on. My perceptions changed with the passing years but I never tired of the experience. It’s hard to give up and leave Jerusalem despite the frustrations.
And heaven knows, worldly Jerusalem has some very earthly concerns.
Whoever says that cleanliness is next to godliness is not thinking of the average Jerusalem street. Talk of coexistence often refers to the various religious streams rather than between Jewish and Arab residents. Negotiating the downtown traffic, disrupted for years by the construction of the light rail, makes the passengers on my bus every day discuss the possibility that a serious investigation will be launched into it, even before the Holyland scandal is settled.
I’ve been moved many times, and often driven crazy. Not literally, Ihasten to add. But perhaps that’s because I live here and am not justvisiting. No other city in the world inspires its own medicallyrecognized syndrome, a psychosis that afflicts normally sane touristswho start hearing voices no one else is hearing and believing they aresomeone very different from the person who appears in their passport.
Life in Jerusalem is special. Friday afternoons, for example, have aninimitable feel as the Holy City readies, not for the weekend like therest of the world, but to meet the Sabbath. Saturdays are quiet. Thestreets are full not with vehicles but with people wandering to eatwith friends and family. Sundays, it’s back to work, the buses crowdedwith students going back to their studies and soldiers going to theirbases.
Peace would indeed be heavenly.