City of Stone and Flowers

A Postcard from Jerusalem.

It's less like other cities in Israel, and more like Burning Man, I explained to our 14-year old as we headed to Jerusalem on Wednesday. We had stopped for a nosh in Herzliya at a branch of a sophisticated Israeli coffee chain, our last swig of stainless-steel modernity before beginning the climb to bewilderment that the Old Jerusalem Road has come to represent.

What I mean by it being like Burning Man, I explained (since for him Burning Man is a reasonable and friendly point of reference) is that everything in Jerusalem is notched up one. People who visit here are tourists-plus. People who live here are residents-plus. Plus what? They're Seekers. Or Pilgrims. Or Professional Jews. Or Chasidim. Or Artists. Or Poets. Or Peace Workers. Or Little Old Ladies who Immigrated Against All Odds. Like at Burning Man, everything - necessarily - has intentionality. There is nothing casual. Even trying to live normally requires a romantic idea and considerable effort. A seemingly simple life in an orderly Rechavia apartment, taking the bus to concerts and sipping ice coffee in a corner cafe, is a normalcy that must be fashioned. Not making a statement here is itself a statement. See? I live in Jerusalem, and I'm not a crackpot like those others.

This city mystifies me. I arrive here each time and fail to find my way around. I lived here for a full year in college. I've had 7 other occasions to spend time in and out of Jerusalem. But each time, when I roll in, the streets rearrange themselves so that I'm always walking the long way when the most direct route is right where I'd been standing to begin with. Something I'd remembered as next door turns out to be many blocks away; something I'd remembered as prohibitively remote suddenly looms in front of me. Finally today I gave up altogether and left the map in my pocket, letting the 14-year old's best friend do the navigating, quite efficiently, using the impressive internal compass he's somehow developed in just two days.

I'm always at a loss for where I stand in Jerusalem, and not just geographically. I don't know how to represent myself. I'm an American Jewish tourist, but I mostly shy away from American Jewish tourists for internalized Anti-Semitic reasons that I have yet to fully own. My Hebrew is fluent and I have a smattering of Arabic, so I prefer to be taken for an unidentifiable foreigner when possible, an international secret agent rather than someone for whom Israel was the next logical step after summer camp.

But this is a city where people clearly represent themselves. Everyone has a specific role in the social disorder, and they wear associated uniforms so as to be easily identifiable to others and to each other. The height of the hat. The pattern on the scarf. Long coat. Short coat. Wig. White kippah. Leggings. My friend Amichai has stood with me in Jerusalem, identifying branch of Chasid, city of origin in the Old Country and specific Yeshivah based entirely on the particulars of the costume. I am not so expert, and the 14-year-olds are complete novices. I pointed out two dark-robed, bearded men to them in the Old City, and they cycled through every flavor of Chasid they'd heard of before realizing that they were actually Russian Orthodox priests.

I would like to wear a kippah here. I have a gut desire to somehow convey that like others of louder costuming, I take my place in Judaism seriously. But I don't understand the ideological iconography of kippot well enough to know and control what statement I may or may not be making in the process. (See this essay by my cousin Alden Solovy for a sense of why.)

Like many of the people in this city, I engage with Torah. But I don't know how to engage with them about Torah. I don't know the rules here and I'm afraid of being proselytized or patronized or even - my deepest unspoken fear - bullied. So, for instance, the Chasid next to me on the bus today coming from the Western Wall (long black coat, brimmed hat, pants-not-stockings), who kept dozing off and falling into me, was at first trying to study this week's Torah portion - Balak (as I could see by covertly eying his reading material). I wanted to strike up a conversation. I wanted to say, I think Balaam knew all along he was going to bless the Children of Israel; he just had some personal process and political wrinkles to work out, don't you think?

Maybe he would have been surprised and delighted. But I was afraid of scorn. So despite Pirkei Avot telling us that where two people exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests, I kept silent and left a restless God hovering somewhere outside of the bus, breathing exhaust.

Maybe if I could be here longer, more than a few days every few years, I could find an entry point, a crack in the stone. This is a city of stone, after all: Jerusalem stone. An off-white limestone that every building, by custom and law, is made of, giving the city a silvery glow at night and its famed "Jerusalem of Gold" radiance by day. And out of the cracks grow scrubby, flowering things. Lantana, bougainvillea, sage. Stone and flower are how this city looks, dust and rosemary its smells.

It is also a place of blazing white heat. Not just solar heat but political heat. Ethnic heat. Religious heat. I went with the kids today to the Western Wall to tour the tunnels underneath. This excavation reveals the full western side of the Roman-era Temple Mount, of which the Western Wall where Jews pray constitutes only one eighth or so.

To do this we breezed past the compact women's prayer section and the much more spacious men's section, aware that while before the State of Israel men and women mingled freely at this holiest of spots, the division of the sexes is now zealously enforced by a politically empowered religious authority, with the bulk of rights and privileges denied to women altogether. We descended into the Jewishly characterized tunnels, which were mined under the 1400-year old Muslim Quarter, and it belatedly dawned on me how this very excavation is meant, at least in part, to undermine Muslim authority in this much too holy, much too earthly place.

You see, every stone here is claimed, and everyclaim is refuted. And so it has been since Jerusalem's earliest history. Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Mamluks, Crusaders, Ottomans, British and Jews again. We tend to imagine clean lines of ownership, like a chart in a textbook looking like a layer cake. But the struggle for Jerusalem has always been stone by stone, street by street, tunnel by tunnel. Small aggressions only occasionally punctuated by outright conquest.

At the end of the tour we reversed course and retraced the entire route to the Jewish-run and heavily policed Western Wall plaza. There would be no exit today through the Muslim Quarter. The Old City was to be closed to tourists at noon, because it is the one-year anniversary of Jewish hoodlums kidnapping and killing an Arab boy in retaliation for the abduction and murder of three Jewish Yeshivah boys, and it was feared tensions would be high.

Conflict hangs in the Jerusalem air like pollen, like dust, like humidity. You feel like you are complicit in something by breathing it, but breathe you must.

But here's the thing: I still love this place. With all its intensity, with its beyond-cliche contradictions. It is a place where uncanny things happen to me. Where on my first night here, at age 16, I unexpectedly bump into my home rabbi at the Western Wall. And today, at age 54, I bump into him again at virtually the same spot. A place where I once decided to seek out the grave of the Maiden of Ludmir on the Mount of Olives and - would you ever believe me if I told you? - a bird led me to it. This place is thick with uncanny, living unremarkably alongside the prosaic: dust and noise and soldiers and vendors and bus drivers and shouting children. I can't explain how this happens. Do the overlapping dreams that thousands of people bring here somehow congeal to form some mystical field? Magic happens everywhere, perhaps. But here, like at Burning Man, everyone is looking for it all at once.

Clearly, life is simpler anywhere else than here. When I leave Jerusalem, I always feel a mixture of sadness and relief.

But right now I'm here. Welcoming Shabbat with the music-making hip Jews, both Israeli and American, down at the old train station. Walking neighborhoods that are probably quieter in my mind than they are in actuality. At some point tonight, despite a fumbled rendezvous and a botched picnic and the 14-year olds, with no real knowledge of Hebrew, managing to organize neighborhood children into what is undoubtedly a junior crime ring; at some point, this city indeed got quieter and gentler, snippets of zmirot poured out of windows, laughter could be heard, calm could be felt; at some point the Shechinah, earlier kicked off a crowded bus, now robed in purple night, settled at last on a city of flowers and stone.