Why I Don’t Live in Jerusalem

The holy city is a pain in the neck

| March-April 1996

I left Jerusalem for the Israeli coast 23 years ago, and sometimes, visiting the city, I am swept by relief that I live elsewhere, sometimes by regret as harsh as grief. Jerusalem is an old love I broke up with long ago, and time has not healed the wounds.

How I hate the place, the whole outrageous, sanctimonious bluff of it: Jerusalem the holy, celebrating its official 3,000th birthday this year—the eternal spiritual capital of the Jewish people in which nothing spiritual has happened for millennia! The Law, we are told, was given at Sinai. Some parts of the Bible may have been written in Jerusalem, but it’s nearly impossible to say which. The prophets? Of the major ones, Jeremiah came from Anatot, Amos from Tekoa; Ezekiel prophesied in Babylonia, Hosea in Samaria. That leaves Isaiah, who, according to Jewish tradition, was put to death in Jerusalem, and – If you are inclined to count him in—the Jewish preacher from Nazareth, who met the same fate.

And afterwards? Afterwards Mishnah, the Oral Law, was created in the coastal plain and the Galilee, the Midrash commentaries on Scripture likewise; the Palestinian Talmud, in the Galilee; Hebrew linguistic studies, in Tiberias; postbiblical Hebrew poetry, outside of Jerusalem too.

And afterwards? Afterwards Jewish creativity moved away from the land of Israel entirely. And yet, when it flared up there again, briefly, in the Middle Ages, in that extraordinary school of mysticism known as Lurianic Kabbalah, without which there would have been no Hasidism, it did so in Safed, not Jerusalem.

And afterwards? Afterwards the city moldered on, a stagnant backwater of sacred graves and sterile Orthodoxy, living off the dole of the Diaspora, a “poem of dust,” as the Hebrew novelist Yosef Hayyim Brenner called it, even as the first Zionist pioneers settled in the Galilee, in the coastal plain, in the foothills of Judaea.

And afterwards? Afterwards, when Zionism came to Jerusalem too, the unique institutions of the state-in-progress—all-Jewish cities, Jewish industry, kibbutzim, the defense forces, the labor organizations—developed in other places. Even the revival of spoken Hebrew, attributed by popular myth to the Jerusalemite Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, first took place in the agricultural colonies of Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, and Zichron Ya’akov.

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