My Word: The real and surreal Jerusalem

Any place will change with time, let alone 3,000 years, but it’s the same city.

Jerusalem panorama, from David’s Citadel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem panorama, from David’s Citadel
There is often something surreal about life in Jerusalem – an extraordinary quality that comes from living in a place where the holy and the mundane survive not so much sideby- side as simultaneously on two different levels: the heavenly and the very down-to-earth.
Recently, I received a reminder of the city’s other- worldly character. During a brief trip to Sarajevo in April, I met a woman who couldn’t believe her luck in having a chance to chat to a real live Jerusalemite.
Only two weeks before, she gushingly told me, had she discovered that the Jerusalem of the Bible and the Jerusalem in the news are one and the same.
A Jewish friend had explained it to her and she still couldn’t get over it.
The newly enlightened woman was well-educated, spoke several languages, and was involved in the tourism industry. Like most Sarajevans I met, she was proud of her city’s nickname “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” for the number of churches, mosques and synagogues existing in close proximity. She now thirsted to know about the real Jerusalem, “my Jerusalem.”
She walked with me for some 15 minutes through sleet and snow, happy to have a chance to catch up on some three millennia of history and telling me of her newfound plans to visit and see for herself the biblical places she’s heard about.
It’s the same city, but any place will change with time, let alone 3,000 years, I reflected. The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is what you can still see, feel and experience.
When we parted, she gave me a strong hug, as if through me she could reach out and embrace the Holy City.
As I dried off my wet clothes and tried to warm up – feeling a very long way from my home under Mediterranean skies – I wondered how it was that an intelligent person in the Western world had not made the connection between the two Jerusalems, the ancient and the new, for so long. It’s not like the city lacks publicity.
One of the reasons, I believe, is a matter of names. If they only ever hear of al-Aksa and not of the Temple Mount, eventually the compound with the mosques will replace the site of the ancient temples in people’s consciousness.
My journey to Sarajevo took place just a few days after UNESCO’s executive board adopted a resolution whose language utterly ignored Jewish (and Christian) ties to the area. It referred to the Temple Mount exclusively as al-Aksa Mosque/al-Haram al Sharif and called the Western Wall plaza by its Arabic name “al-Buraq.”
The constant renaming is almost Orwellian, and it apparently works. Thousands of years of Jewish history and yearning are being purposely erased.
That’s why we repeat Psalm 137’s “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem....” at every Jewish wedding, passing the history and its message on.
O JERUSALEM. I have neighbors who remember the 1948 siege of the War of Independence and for years kept an empty bucket on the roof to catch rainfall that was too good to waste; friends recall the dangers of the pre-1967 years, when they were taught how to dodge Jordanian snipers. Most of my friends commemorate the fall of the First and Second Temples as naturally as they celebrate the city’s reunification, the anniversary of which falls this year on June 5.
This is Jerusalem.
Most of us just spend our lives worrying about the same things that concern people everywhere: the transport system, vagaries of the weather and cost of living. But the holy is never very far – be it reflected in the street names, the sound of Hebrew being spoken; the unique change of pace as the Sabbath is welcomed.
Jews and Arabs share the same stores, cafes and public transport – despite the efforts of our detractors to portray Israel as an apartheid state. We also share the same annoyances with City Hall bureaucracy, poorly maintained streets and unpredictable water bills.
I realize that Jerusalem’s Arab residents do not see the reunification of the city in the same miraculous terms as I do, but I don’t feel the need to apologize.
As I’ve said before, I’m proud to be on the side that didn’t launch wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973 – and lose.
I’m happy to be part of a people who build and rebuild Jerusalem, making it grow and flourish. I don’t occupy Jerusalem; I live in it.
In Jerusalem, like Sarajevo for that matter, the more people of all religions understand that their welfare and livelihoods depend on peace, commerce and creating an attractive environment for tourists (and pilgrims), the safer we will all be.
DURING A visit to Taiwan last month – I usually stick much closer to home, it just so happened that I had two trips abroad one after the other – I had a different insight. Having traveled from the capital, Taipei, to the most significant city in the south, Kaohsiung, I reflected with the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry liaison officer on the “two-city phenomenon.”
Many countries have two metropolises engaged in a friendly rivalry, we noted: Madrid and Barcelona; Toronto and Montreal; Melbourne and Sydney; Rome and Milan; Brussels and Antwerp; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. You can add your favorites and their rival counterparts to the list.
In Israel, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv struggle with each other. Although firmly on Jerusalem’s side, I have come to see them as a form of yin and yang, two complementary forms that together make a whole; pray and play.
In Tel Aviv, the Azrieli buildings – those circular, square and triangular towers – are an iconic landmark.
The observatory at the top of the circular building offers a bird’s-eye view of the city and the Mediterranean.
For the best view of Jerusalem’s history – and the city itself – climb to the top of the Tower of David Museum. Both the sea off Tel Aviv’s beaches and the biblically renowned hills surrounding Jerusalem have a timeless quality that puts you in your place.
Jerusalem Day will give way to Shavuot the following week – one of the three festivals when Jews in Temple times made a pilgrimage to the city.
The are holidays and festivals; fun and prayers; everyday life and the extraordinary. There is singing from synagogues, chiming church bells and the muezzins’ calls to prayers. There’s traffic and the noise of construction as a city rooted in time immemorial constantly tries to meet current and future needs.
Jerusalem is both real and spiritual. No wonder strangers have a hard time understanding its special essence and the secret of its survival.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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