Jerusalem 2013: A City of Beggars and Prophets

I fell in love with Jerusalem in 1971, as a junior-year-abroad student at the Hebrew University. Someone who visits there today for the first time would be hard-pressed to imagine just how different the city was then…

Old diesel buses spewed fumes into the air, and the absence of air-conditioning brought those fumes back into the bus through open windows. Every other person on the bus was also smoking, which, coupled with the fumes, made even the shortest of rides more than unpleasant. The Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University had only two or three classroom buildings, and the rest was white sand, which was blinding in the sunlight. There were very few quality restaurants in town. If a relative came to visit and took you to the Grill Room at the King David Hotel, you were living the good life. There were few public toilets, and if you were lucky enough to find one, some old geezer would be sitting outside and charge you a few lira (pre-shekel) to enter, and then a few agurot more for toilet paper that was more like crepe paper. Movie theaters would stop the film mid-frame to create an intermission for purchasing snacks. The competition for apartments in the Rehavia neighborhood of the city was fierce. Pre-cable TV, all Israeli television was government-owned, and stopped broadcasting at midnight with the playing of Hatikvah.

From what I’ve written, you might well think that my fellow students and I were put off by the eccentricities, even backwardness, of Israel, coming from relatively comfortable backgrounds here in America. But exactly the opposite was the case. Students like me freely and fearlessly hitched our way around the country, exploring every inch, falling deeply in love with an Israel that, despite periodic horrific episodes of terrorism, was still reveling in post- Six Day War euphoria. We discovered in Israel a home that we never knew we had, and we were completely hooked.

Fast forward more than forty years, and Jerusalem is exponentially larger, and more Western. That old sense of “charming primitive-ness” is largely gone, although it can still manifest itself at the oddest times.

The buses are almost all modern and clean, and the stops are electronically displayed, with a calm pre-recorded voice announcing each one. No on smokes on the buses anymore– not even the driver. Mount Scopus is a city unto itself, and all the humanities departments of the university have long since transferred there from the Givat Ram campus. There a plentiful restaurants in the city, many of them quite elegant and tasty, and the bathrooms…. well, they’re better than they were before. The movie theaters are saner now. If you’re up all night for any reason, there’s plenty to watch on cable TV.

But Israel itself is a far less carefree country than it was all those years ago, and I have watched it evolve into this new state of being over countless trips these past few decades. It is a much more reflective and conflicted place to live than it was, ambivalent about the big issues confronting it, seasoned by the hardships and losses of unending war and terror, and the lingering administration of the territories captured in the 1967 war. Security concerns are enormous, and since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, of blessed memory, political figures who used to walk around unnoticed are now protected around the clock.

Almost everything has changed about Israel, and particularly the Jerusalem that I love. But a few things have stayed the same, and it’s hard to miss them. Jerusalem is a city filled with beggars and prophets. They are everywhere you go. And there is something about them that embodies the other-worldliness that makes Jerusalem unique.

There is an ancient rabbinic legend about beggars at the city gate, and how treating them indifferently delays the coming of the Messiah. After all, one of them could be Elijah, measuring the social consciousness of the town’s citizens, and assessing whether or not they are ready to welcome the Messiah.

In Jerusalem, it’s hard to tell the potential Elijahs (though many of the beggars look ancient in their garb) from the seasoned schnorrers who are just a MIddle Eastern version of a genre we know well from our own home towns. In New York, I’m so used to panhandlers who inhabit the subway stations that I barely notice them (yes, I realize that one of them could be an urban Elijah… a risk I take). But in Jerusalem, they are harder to ignore. They look… like family, I think. And the look in their eyes when you pass them by without giving them money seems to me to be far more penetrating than the variety I am used to from home. It might well just be me, but it seems to me that the beggars in Jerusalem are everywhere, like they always have been. Modernization has had no impact on them at all… except maybe to make their relentless neediness even more jarring.

Another ancient rabbinic tradition has it that, since the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, prophecy is given only to fools. If true, Jerusalem is one foolish city.

Even a casual conversation with a stranger on a Jerusalem street is as likely as not to produce a lengthy discourse on the issues of the day, and which political leader or party is likely to lead the country down the road to ruin (or is already doing so). This fascinates me endlessly. Clearly, the descendants of the ancient Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumpeditha, where the Talmud was written, live in modern day Jerusalem. They have finely honed opinions on almost everything, and they will share them with you– completely convinced of their truth like the prophets of old– without the slightest provocation.

I will never be able to get enough of this city, no matter how many times I come back. The world changes all around it, and much of the physical character of the city changes, too. But the beggars and their stares are timeless reminders of the messianic undertones that are always pulsating here, and the sidewalk prophets whose opinions are offered so freely leave one wondering– which one really knows what he is talking about?

Jerusalem– a city of beggars, prophets… and gold.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.