Jerusalem: the connector of the three Abrahamic religions. The most beautiful place in the world. I have only been there once in my life, yet somehow it feels like home.
I remember walking hand-in hand with my Jewish friends down the middle of the streets during Shabbat on our way to synagogue. The streets were silent and empty even though we were in the middle of a city bustling with traffic during the week. It was unlike anything I had seen before; it was as though the entire city stopped to breath, to relax, and to reflect.
I remember the first time I visited the Western Wall. What blew me away most was not the religious connections to the very place, but the history that lay beneath my feet. The yellow stones were worn–worn with the footprints of people from across the world who have come to witness its magnificence–worn with 3,000 years of standing strong.
I remember when my Jewish youth group stopped to pray in the middle of the Old City. I had stopped many times in the United States to pray with Jewish groups, yet this time was different. Unlike the other times, the prayers flowed easily from my tongue. They were not sung in mere whispers, afraid and ashamed of what the people around us might think, but as proud exclamations of our Jewish identities. For once, I could sing–sing loudly and sing proudly.
For the first eight years of my life, I attended Jewish Day School in California. The walls of the school shielded us from the reality that to be Jewish was to be different. The Hebrew alphabet lining the whiteboards of our classrooms was normal for us. So were the words “Sheket bevakasha” used to quiet the classroom. So was the assembly at the end of every Friday, where the entire community–students, parents, and teachers–gathered together to welcome the Shabbat. The first star I learned how to draw was not with five points, but rather the Star of David: two triangles that overlapped perfectly.
Going to Jerusalem felt like returning to the walls of my elementary school, for the differentiating factor between myself and those around me was not our religion; rather, the words we spoke and the thoughts we believed. The people on the streets around me knew my prayers and my traditions. Wandering the streets, I was immersed in the Hebrew of my youth. I had never witnessed Hebrew integrated into regular society, instead of only in the Jewish aspects of my life. In Jerusalem, my Judaism did not mean that I was different; it meant that I belonged. 7,346 miles away from where I grew up, I was home.
Jerusalem is not only my “home,” but a home for so many other communities around the world: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. I remember standing on a hill looking out into the distance. In one frame of vision I could see the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I find it so ironic that one of the most beautiful elements of the city, the diversity of people who all share a love for it, is the very force that often divides us. The one element that has the capacity to unite much of the world–the shared roots of our religions–is the very thing which sparks war and fuels violence. It taints the beauty of a land so pure.
A few months ago, when I got into an Uber, I soon learned that my driver was a very thoughtful Palestinian man who moved to the states to escape violence. We talked about the land–for me “Israel,” for him “Palestine”– and the places we loved and cherished. He asked me, “what is your favorite city?” I did not hesitate to answer, “Jerusalem” to which I was met with eager agreement. He also felt connected to Jerusalem, whose complicated history predates us all by thousands of years.
Why must beauty divide us?