My love affair with Jerusalem is intense, and fierce — the kind of love that makes me want to claw the ceiling, that leaves me trembling and shaking and wide awake.
This love began thousands of years ago when my ancestors walked those ancient ways, through dust, and over jagged rocks, past the occasional spring with sweet grass, to see that Holy City shining on the hill.
It’s in my blood.
Jerusalem is my due north.
It is the center of my heart, and make no mistake. It is THE heart of the Jewish people.
It’s also the center of many of my own family stories — stories which informed my own love story with Jerusalem.
My ultra-Orthodox great-grandmother, with the stubborn jaw and hair like a waterfall down her back, and flashing eyes, fell in love in Jerusalem with an Ottoman official and had a hot, steamy, sexy love affair with him on a roof overlooking the Old City. When her family found out, they shipped her as far away from Jerusalem as they could — to the middle of Chicago, where she met my great-grampa and got married.
Were it not for Jerusalem, they’d never have met.
My mom spent the warm sweet months after June 1967 in Jerusalem — one of the first of her generation allowed back in the Old City, and she described how it felt to walk the old alleyways while the air literally tingled all around her. When she returned to the States, still glowing from those perfect months, she was so full of life and energy that she wanted to devote her time to making the world a better place. So, she volunteered in Robert Kennedy’s campaign, and on her first day in the campaign headquarters she met my dad.
I grew up on these stories, and on others too — about the scrappy fighters who fought tooth and nail against all odds… About the oil lasting for eight days, about how we defeated the Jordanian and Egyptian armies in just six. About how the desert bloomed, and how we rose out of the ashes of catastrophe to make a home for ourselves in the same place where our ancestors had once watered their sheep and broke their bread and kissed their kids goodnight.
Whenever I would visit Israel, I felt the most at home, and alive, and enthralled in the Old City, where all the stories began.
But on a night when I was just 18, while I stood by Damascus Gate, I was hit with rocks and I became afraid.
It took many years, and a journalist friend to get me back into the Old City, but I wanted to be there — essentially, to come home again after years in the desert.
And while I started exploring those old streets again, I began to notice the other people around me. Not “the Arabs” — but the mother soothing her tired baby. Not “the Muslims” — but the old guys smushed into metal chairs arguing over who won backgammon. Not “the enemy of the Jewish people” — but pretty girls in hijabs, flirting with the brothers who ran the place with the fresh ground coffee.
And that’s what made me want to LIVE in the Old City, in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate IN THE WORLD, a place fraught and fought over, a place where people have literally been willing to kill and die over. I wanted to buy figs from the woman on the corner, and bread from the guy by Damascus Gate. I wanted to walk through and feel like I was home — not just in the Jewish Quarter, but in every quarter, and every space.
So I did. And I got to know people. And I wrote a book about it. It wasn’t always rainbows and kenaffe and Kumbaya — there were times that were scary and difficult and frustrating and sad. But I learned a lot by talking to people from all different parts of the same city we love so desperately.
And this is what I know: I have friends who love Jerusalem just as much as I do — they may face Mecca when they pray, but they live in Jerusalem, and have for generations, just as my family has yearned for Jerusalem for generations.
And above all, I wanted my kids to have that experience, too — and to realize that the world was a lot bigger than their gorgeous little kibbutz bubble in the center of the country where everyone speaks Hebrew and is pretty much Jewish, but everyone drives to Ramle for hummus, and watches TV on Shabbat.
I want them to see the possibility of what happens when we look people in the eye and tell the truth about who we are, and they look us in the eye and tell the truth about who THEY are.
There may not be agreement, but there will be connection. And that’s where love begins.
This is why I struggle during Jerusalem Day.
Because every year there’s this parade — tens of thousands of celebrants marching through Jerusalem waving flags. And it’s fun and it’s lively — until the parade route careens through Damascus Gate into the Muslim Quarter.
And then I feel sick.
It turns into a nightmare, where young boys bang on shuttered doors, where Palestinian children hide upstairs behind their parents, where the Border Police warn the merchants in the Muslim Quarter to lock up and go home so they don’t get hurt.
For what? For us to march through a place where we literally rarely go on any given weekday? I promise you, in all my time in the Muslim Quarter, I can count on exactly two hands the number of times I’ve seen Jewish Israelis buying oranges from the guy inside Damascus Gate, or sage from the woman who looks old, but probably isn’t, or having their phone fixed at the store where two teenagers will fix a broken screen in five minutes. If you won’t go into the Muslim Quarter and get to know your neighbors on any given Wednesday, why the need to shut it down and march through, when there are other ways to the Western Wall?
Is waving flags and screaming in a mob and even shouting, “Death to the Arabs,” how strong and confident people act?
And that’s why I’m grateful that Jerusalem Tolerance is out there in the world and hosting alternative events for Jerusalem Day — and that’s why I am excited to be one of the activists. Because I want to celebrate the Jerusalem I love — but I want to do it with others who are committed to building bridges and mending rifts.
Among the things we’ll be doing: a tour of the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla, the Tag Meir flower parade in the Old City, where we will hand out flowers to the merchants and residents in the Old City, a religious Jewish troop of male dancers performing Palestinian Debka in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) garb, an interfaith prayer evening, a lecture by a former Muslim American who today is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli, and I’ll be around, too, talking about the Old City.
Jerusalem Day could be a time for healing — where we can listen to one another and work together to make things a little better, and this is a great opportunity to start.
It could be an opportunity for real love.
I want a better Jerusalem for my kids — a nourishing, kind and friendly city, where Arabs and Jews are truly united in building shared society.
I realized something while living in the Old City, that I knew, but didn’t really internalize until I saw the same hunger and the same desire in the eyes of all the different people I met: I’m not the only one who loves Jerusalem. We all do. We are all parched, and on our knees and begging Jerusalem to love us back. And the secret is, we can’t have her all to ourselves. She can’t actually be had — she is that fierce and wild creature that loves on her terms, and she is capable of loving us all. But she won’t, unless we learn to share.
And it makes sad because I feel every year gets harder — I feel like all of us — Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews, are gripping her tighter.
And it frightens me that when my daughter’s teacher asked the students just this morning “What do you know about Jerusalem?” one of her classmates answered quickly, “Jerusalem belongs only to the Jews.”
But it gives me hope that my daughter waved her little hand in the air and said before the teacher could even call on her, “No. Jerusalem belongs to all of us. Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Palestinians and Israelis, and anyone else who is willing to love it.”