Jerusalem is a city that evokes a different image in everyone’s mind. The Peruvian cabdriver on the way to the airport said he had always dreamed of going there, as had his entire village, but it was too expensive. For him and his family Jerusalem was the Holy City that they would see in their dreams, near yet elusive. He asked me what the people were like, how they lived, and was surprised when I said they lived lives just like anyone else. He saw Jerusalem as the Holy City but had a hard time understanding that people had lives there too, struggling with the very same problems he did.
A friend, whose family comes from Ethiopia, told me that her family had thought the streets of Israel were lined with gold. They had imagined a literal Yerushalayim Shel Zahav or Jerusalem of Gold. Of course such a holy city, probably the holiest in the world, where God is always near, would be built out of gold. Imagine the shock when they arrived to see streets made out of stone, with garbage casually littered on the sidewalk.
It would be easy to dismiss these fantasies, but one should be careful to do so. I think we all have our own image of Jerusalem, a fantasy city nourished by our imaginations.
My first day here, I was wandering around in the city, when an unkept man came up to me asking for change. In shock, I did not respond. He walked past me, asking the next person, who refused to give him money as did several people after. I was used to doing this in New York where it had become routine. I would repeat to myself what others had told me, that it would only fuel a drug addiction or alcoholism.
But in Jerusalem, I felt different. How could a man go hungry in the streets of the Holy City? If the people living in Jerusalem did not take mercy on the man, was there any hope for us, the exiled? I felt sad and disillusioned, because right there, a tiny part of my Jerusalem had been chipped away at.
And then I realized: I was just like all those other people who saw Jerusalem as the Holy City but could not imagine people living there, or who thought the streets would be paved with gold. I wondered to myself if I had been mistaken coming here, if my expectations had simply been too high.
Yet, Jerusalem has a way of taking away one dream while igniting a new one. The days before my flight, I had been panicking, worried that there would be a terror attack and that I would not be safe. As soon as I arrived in Jerusalem, and walked the streets, I felt a calm I had not felt in a while.
When I stood in front of the Kotel, all cynicism faded away. A woman next to me was praying so fervently, she was saying the words out loud. A child giggled as she read out of a tiny pink siddur. Silently, I kissed the wall, leaning against it with my forehead, trying to grasp a sliver of the holiness that my ancestors had felt here.
Later, with the star-filled sky above and the Kotel ahead, I thought about what my friend’s family had expected when arriving in Israel. I realized they had not been wrong. Jerusalem is a city, like any other, made out of stone. But from time to time, we can still see the City of Gold shimmering above.