The holy city is a pain in the neck
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.
And today? Today Jerusalem is a city of half a million people with suburbs and traffic jams and government offices and a university and some nice cafés and a few picturesque neighborhoods and too many tourists and the world’s highest concentration of religious lunatics, and the real cultural and commercial work of the nation gets done in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s productive life goes on.
A spiritual capital? More of value has been created in Chicago.
And perhaps you’re just listening to love’s wounds.
They open again on summer nights when the Jerusalem breeze riffles in my face, smelling of jasmine and pine needles, as cool after a hot day as spring water on a long hike.
On brilliant blue winter mornings when, walking on King George Street, I look up and am startled to see the Mountains of Moab across the Jordan, as clearly etched as if space no longer existed, the last veils stripped from the world.
On afternoons when I watch the sun go down from the Mount of Olives or Mount Scopus, the swelling city on one side and the Wilderness of Judaea on the other, each rising to meet the other and falling back again like surf, and I think: Here is the knife edge between man’s busyness and God’s emptiness; I am standing on it right now.
It is then that I think that the truth about Jerusalem is that it is everything it is said to be, the hard nodule from which the world was created. But it is too much for us and always has been. How do you live in a city that faces the gates of heaven? You seal their drafts as best you can with temples and synagogues and churches and mosques and walls and halls and pedestrian malls, and then you preen for the pilgrims in order to make a living like the rest of us. And they come, the pilgrims, and climb towers and descend steps and explore grottoes and run their hands wonderingly along the old stones, and now and then one of them feels the draft on his neck and runs about shouting that he is Jesus or King David.
It breaks my heart, Jerusalem. I’m happy I don’t live there. I can’t stand the pride of those who do. It’s always a bit painful for me to visit. I suspect that’s only because I’m jealous.
Reprinted from Moment, December 1995.