Jerusalem is a holy city. A bridge between the material and the spiritual. Many would say between the earth and the heavens.
But what is holy?: “Connected to a god or a religion/ religious and morally good” — Merriam-Webster.
As I walk home through the botanical gardens on a warm Thursday afternoon, the ever-present Call to Prayer reverberates around the buildings of East Jerusalem; at night, it weaves through the windows of our classrooms. Jews pray on the train as I ride back to school. Priests walk the Via Dolorosa while people haggle for chotskies in the shops of the Old City.
Is this what it means to be holy?
On one of my first Shabbats in Jerusalem, a couple friends and I woke up at five in the morning to walk to the Western Wall, to explore what we had heard about the Women of the Wall protests. When my alarm went off it was black, save for the lights and the stars that dot the land between my window and the Dead Sea. I was vaguely aware of a noise outside and I opened my window to a wave of cold night air and a swirl of voices. I wasn’t familiar with the Call to Prayer — in my tired haze I stood in the cold and the darkness and listened to the other-worldly sounds of a religion and a people I didn’t know but found myself in the midst of. Even if you try, the sounds and sights of faith here are inescapable.
It was beautiful. It felt holy.
“Connected to a god or a religion/ religious and morally good”.
The fights that ensue over a Palestinian art display at Hebrew University, the readings I highlight for Foreign Policy, and the protests of Orthodox Jews in the streets all keep me in line; remind me that this place is special, that everything is alive here, that the air I breath is touched with people’s prayers, that these walls were built with hopes and visions and sincerity. On different beliefs, for different visions, often through the pain of conflict. One cannot help but feel the earnestness of seemingly a million and one different voices that belong to only 800,000 residents. It is as political and national as it is religious.
Jerusalem is connected to religions, it is full of religious people; but it is also full of those who dissociate themselves from the things that make other things holy, from the places holiness resides, from the idea that something can be holy.
Does it matter? Any atheist could come here and say what I said now; every “holy” could be replaced with “special”. Every “prayer” could be simply a “hope”. Jerusalem holds many hopes.
The calls are a constant reminder that this place is a holy place — holy because of its people, because of its history, and perhaps for no other reason than because its people remember its history and believe that it is holy. Because on the most basic level, one needs only belief to have something to believe in. Because even in the most secular sense, it is drenched in passion, for better or for worse.
And if this place is truly closer G-d; even then holiness does not exist unless we make it so. We take holiness and we breathe it and make it thick in the air; build temples, sing prayers, start wars, raise families. Place it in minds, release it in tears, write it on paper. Send it in letters, plant it with kisses. Let it reverberate in our thoughts. Holiness is here because we let it be so.