I missed being born in Jerusalem by one year. We moved there when I was a year old. My birthplace is Boston. But I always felt I was “of Jerusalem” or, as one would be known in Israel, a “Yerushalmit.”
In my twenties, when I came across Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon’s words, whose famed character Tehilla (“psalm”) is my namesake, I felt like he was articulating a feeling of attachment that I had long held but was unable to verbalize. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Agnon shared: “Resulting from the catastrophic destruction that Titus of Rome inflicted upon Jerusalem, consequently exiling Israel from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. Nonetheless, I always perceived myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”
For a long time, these words were printed on Israel’s 50 shekel bill. When I left Israel and Jerusalem to my own personal “exile,” I left with a folded purple 50 shekel bill in my pocket, my personal memento of “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim” (“Lest I forget you, O Jerusalem”) that I carried with me.
To me, Jerusalem has always had an intangible quality, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I used to refer to it as Jerusalem holding a space like that of Shabbat’s neshamah yeteirah, the additional soul that Shabbat endows.
So when I came across Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words I again felt he was expressing a feeling I had long been unable to put into words: “She is the city where waiting for G-d was born, where the anticipation of everlasting peace came into being. Jerusalem is waiting for the prologue of redemption, for new beginning … the evenings often feel like Kol Nidre nights. Unheard music, transfiguring thoughts. Prayers are vibrant. The Sabbath finds it hard to go away…”
In a word: kedushah. Holiness. Jerusalem.
Throughout the millennia, writers and poets, philosophers and songwriters, Talmudists and King David the Psalmist, all put their emotions of longing for this ethereal Yerushalayim into words. “Libi ba-mizrach va-anochi be-sof ma’arav” (“my heart is in the East while I dwell on the edges of the West”) waxed Yehuda Halevi. Rabbi Akiva, a poor shepherd at the time of his nuptials, promised his bride Rachel that one day, when he was able, he would gift her with a “golden Jerusalem.” This became the source for Naomi Shemer’s modern day anthem to Jerusalem that makes us think of Jerusalem painted in every shade of gold.
As Jews sat exiled by the rivers of Babylon, they wept, “for it is more likely that I will forget my right arm than forget Jerusalem,” and to this day, at Jewish weddings, it is customary to conclude the matrimonial ceremony with these very words, accompanied by the shattering of a glass under the chuppah.
When Isaiah offers comfort and consolation, he says, “As a mother comforts her son, So I shall comfort you; You shall find comfort in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem … she is maternal.
Who can add to the poetry of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi? Or King David? I certainly cannot. But in my small way I did, when it was my honor to have had the weekly byline of “View From Jerusalem” for four years, something I shall always cherish.
Shalem, whole, is at the heart of the word Yerushalayim. Ultimately, that is what Jerusalem symbolizes and represents: wholeness. That elusive ideal, that elusive wholeness we as humanity, as Jews, crave and strive for and try to cling to.
Yet, it was Jerusalem, the city that represents wholeness, that was divided for so long. Or was besieged, captured, recaptured too many times to count. So fragile. Yet so strong. Jerusalem is a complex brew of contradicting and conflicting qualities coalescing within her. Perhaps, it is these qualities — fragile and vulnerable, yet eternally resilient — that form Jerusalem’s luminescence. Both a lamentation and a consolation, these are Jerusalem’s endurance.
After all, we never did forget Jerusalem. Regardless of whether Jerusalem was broken, divided or united, we never faltered. If anything, when we were exiled, our dreams for Jerusalem were only amplified.
The tall, strong, walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, its top cut out like an endless crown, stand their ground with fortitude and calm, regal composure, protective, like a parent, like a guardian angel, enclosing, encompassing the ancient Jerusalem within. Yet when viewing those monumental walls from afar, they inspire strength still. Because Jerusalem is timeless.
Those walls. How many centuries of secrets do they hold? How many battles have they withstood? How many pilgrimages have they witnessed? How many broken lamentations have they heard?
They stand unmoving, towering, alone.
Yet, Jerusalem has never been singular. Not in its name, and not in its legend.
There are two Jerusalems, we are told.
The physical Jerusalem we know, the Jerusalem on this earth, “Yerushalayim shel Matah,” the Jerusalem of Below.
Which is but a mere counterpoint to the Jerusalem of Above, the Heavenly Jerusalem, “Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah.”
It is within that gulf, that space of inbetween-ness, from the ideal mythical Heavenly Jerusalem and the very real, mundane Jerusalem, that our longing and affection lives.
Yehuda Amichai writes: “Why is Jerusalem always two, Jerusalem on High and Jerusalem Below? I want to be in the Jerusalem of the middle. Without craning my neck upward, without bruising my feet below. Why is Jerusalem in the language of pairs? Yerushalayim? Like two hands, yadayim, and two feet, raglayim. I just want to be in the “Yerushal.” For I am just one, me, ani. And not anayim.”
I think this literary duality of Jerusalem captures its intensity so well.
But is Jerusalem really only twofold? Jerusalem has strummed on the collective heartstrings of our people for millennia. Jerusalem is Below and Jerusalem is Heavenly. But then there’s also the Jerusalem of hopes and, of course, the Jerusalem of memory.
In another famous teaching about Jerusalem, of 10 measures of beauty in the world, Jerusalem was endowed with nine, the rest of the world with one. The teaching repeats itself, supplanting the word “beauty” with suffering, might, wisdom, hypocrisy, and Torah.
The intensity of Jerusalem is captured simultaneously, poetically and mathematically. If a quality exists in the world in a 1/10 fraction, spread out and diluted around the globe, 9/10 of that same quality is concentrated in Jerusalem. How true this is asymmetry, this mathematical illustration of Jerusalem’s intensity.
Not that Jerusalem can be quantified. It is the city that defies all odds, that runs on magic, spirit, prayer, and on the holiness and the holy, faithful people who, day and night, inhabit it, walking and winding their way throughout the labyrinth of her woven streets and alleys.
I can honestly say that I have glimpsed the splendor and grandeur of the Heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah. The secret is nighttime in Jerusalem. Jerusalemites whose essence is Jerusalem emerge into the night. In those moments it feels like the legend of the 36 hidden righteous tzaddikim really can be true. I recall walking, twisting and turning on various roads, going home up Ussishkin Street and feeling enveloped by this holiness of Jerusalem, feeling as though I were literally touched by Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah.
Of Jerusalem Below, earthly Jerusalem, I can speak more directly. I was raised by Jerusalem. I learned how to find among the winding alleys a shortcut to Machneyuda, as the souk is known locally, as well as to Jaffa Road and King George Street, to wait on Fridays for the Shabbat siren after experiencing the bustling beehive of Geula in the throes of Shabbat preparations. I learned how to rush from Ussishkin Street to the Yeshurun Synagogue, and then to cut through Independence Park to downtown’s Rabbi Akiva Street and then up to Jaffa Gate, portal to the Old City.
The jostling at the souk, the pungent, rosemary or jasmine-scented (depending on the season) Jerusalem night air, the shouts and shivers of the city, the beggars with their outstretched palms, the verve, the tension of the news, Sir Moses Montefiore’s windmill forming part of the city’s silhouette, David Citadel glowing by amber light, the bumbling buses and noisy cafes, the bureaucracy and quarrels and conflicts, passing through the history-laden lore of one of the eight gates to the ancient Old City, to the Kotel, the cacophony and cadences of tolling bells, muezzin calls to prayer and the piercing shofar, and sirens — the heart-stopping whine of sirens — signaling terrorist bloodshed and pain, the golden twilight sunsets reflecting off ancient Jerusalem stones bathing the city as if in a halo of light, the men wrapped in tallit prayer shawls at daybreak in dew-drenched mornings of the Days of Awe, of the most peaceful invisible canopy that descends upon a liminal sunsetting, a dimdumei chamah, the reddening crimson sun, beckoning the Sabbath Queen … Shabbat.
All of these are layers of the “Jerusalem of Below.”
But it wasn’t always so.
I am of the generation that was born into the reality of having a “Jerusalem of Below.” I count among my blessings my merit to live in these historic times of Jerusalem.
From 1949 to 1967, the Old City of Jerusalem was just beyond the border. It was as if there was only one Jerusalem then, the Jerusalem of our dreams, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah.
When Lt. General Motta Gur declared three unforgettable words, Har ha-Bayit be-Yadeinu (the Temple Mount is in Our Hands), on June 7, 1967, in the span of seconds the course of Jewish history was changed forever. It was code for having penetrated the Old City of Jerusalem, the innermost point in the concentric circles of Jerusalem.
Haim Hefer penned the poem, “The Paratroopers Weep”—
This Kotel has heard a multitude of prayers,
This Kotel has seen many walls fall,
This Kotel has felt the hands of grieving women
And that of notes pressed between the crevices of its stones,
This Kotel saw Rabbi Judah HaLevi trampled in front of it,
This Kotel has seen Caesars rising and falling,
But this Kotel has never before seen paratroopers cry.
This Kotel has seen them tired, exhausted,
This Kotel has seen them wounded and scarred,
Running toward it with beating hearts, in cries and in silence,
Emerging in wild abandon from the alleyways of the Old City,
And they’re dust-covered and cracked sore-lipped,
And they’re whispering: If I forget you, if I forget you, O Jerusalem,
And they are lighter than eagles and more tenacious than lions,
And their tanks are the fiery chariots of Elijah the Prophet,
And they pass like lightning, and they pass in fury,
And they remember all those terrible years,
In which we didn’t even have a Kotel in front of which to pour our tears.
And here they are standing in front of it breathing deeply,
And here they are gazing upon it in sweet pain,
And the tears fall, as they look awkwardly at one another,
How is it that paratroopers cry?
How does it happen that they caress the wall with feeling?
How does it happen that their tears transform into song?
Perhaps it is because these 19-year old youths,who were born precisely the year of the state’s founding,
Carry on their backs the burden of 2,000 years.
It was not just those privileged to have returned the Kotel to the Jewish people who reacted so viscerally. In Rabbi Menachem Kasher’s The Western Wall, he records the following from an anonymous secular Israeli:
“Because of its utter plainness, because of its very crudity, so to speak, the wall sets every fiber of my heart aquiver. … I see Jews and Jewesses go up to the Wall and kiss its every stone. As I see this, I want to do the same; but in my lips the power is frozen. How can I kiss cold stone? …
“Yet I feel a stream of tears welling up from the recesses of my heart to my throat, and from there it forces its way up to my eyes. I control myself, even as my entire being shakes with emotion … and a great light illumines my spirit. In an instant the Wall has changed for me. …
“I have forced my way through the mass of people thronging the Wall, and leaned the palms of both hands on the two largest stones I could find. And suddenly I feel some mighty new power flowing from those stones, pouring into the depths of my spirit. At that moment my vague, academic belief that in the past we had a Jewish state, and my abstract theoretical hope that in the future we will have a Jewish state, has hardened into steel. Now I know this. … Purified and calmed, I left the Wall.”
I have leaned on that Wall in my lifetime. Time and again, that Wall has gotten me through.
And yet, though rare, there have been times when it felt like just that, a wall. And that euphoria that Israel and the Jewish people felt after the Six Day War of 1967? Today, sadly, contentiousness regarding Jerusalem has replaced euphoria.
And what of me feeling that I am “of Jerusalem,” a Yerushalmit?
Today I pen this column in my complex and somewhat self-imposed “exile” on foreign soil. It is still “A View from Central Park” and has not yet returned to “A View From Jerusalem.” For now, New York and Colorado have been the right decisions, but Jerusalem they are not.
Although he was not near the rivers of Babylon, he was near a different river and closer to my Central Park, when Aaron Zeitlin expressed his reaction to the news of the miraculous Six Day War victory with the following:
From here, from a street by the Hudson, in Manhattan
A call to you, to you, Jerusalem!
Your liberated Kotel awaits me as well.
So why do I still linger here?
Why do I still rot in Galut?
From here, from a distance, from Manhattan,
where I still sit alone,
do you hear my cry,
and my questioning, questioning myself,
The hold of Jerusalem. Her resilience and resonance reaches across the generations. Regardless of where we might be, we live “for the sake of Jerusalem, lema’an Yerushalayim.”
For me, there are times when I still think of myself as S.Y. Agnon’s mythical Tehilla, walkng mystical velvet dark streets of Old Jerusalem; and, no matter where I am, identifying “as one who was born in Jerusalem.”
Part of this column was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks. Copyright 2017 Intermountain Jewish News