Jews and Arabs fought yesterday in Jerusalem. Both peoples suspect the awful, beautiful truth: that a home is built from footprints, from devotion. Home is not merely where you are, but where you return to.
And so two terrible anxieties clash in this city, two stories, cleaved from each other by all the touchstones that tell us who we are: history, language, tribe, fate.
I am no distant observer in this fight. I am anxious too, and tired, like the old worn-out stones. I was born a Jew in Jerusalem. The first landscape I ever saw was the rolling, cresting hilltops of the Judean desert, that desolate primordial place too big for human frailty but not big enough to leave us alone. In those intimate curves of sand and stone from which prophets and zealots draw their power I learned why people search for a home, fight for it, die for it.
Many cities are lived in, but how many are alive? None of the cities I have seen in my travels were ever as convincingly human as the dirty cobblestones of Jerusalem. I could never really imagine what it feels like to live a life against those strange backdrops. So I am home, here, in this place of overlapping truths and fretful loves.
In Jerusalem, when you throw a stone at a Jew or an Arab, you are disturbing a stone that may have lain just like that, on the side of the road, for 900 years. And it is your very smallness in that echoing immensity that makes your own hatred so seductive and immense.
In Jerusalem, nothing is ever complete, nothing is ever finished or at peace. Everything floats on the foam of a cresting wave, waiting with baited breath for the next crash, the next good story and celebrated ruin. Many cities have a history, which they wisely stow away on the shelves of their museums. Jerusalem has many histories, and they writhe beneath our feet, like snakes, seeking sunlight, dominance, validation. No honest Jerusalemite can tell you whether we are writing our histories or they are writing us. “In the morning,” writes the poet Yehuda Amichai, “the shadow of the Old City falls on the new. In the afternoon – the opposite.”
And sometimes we choke from it all. And pray. As Amichai reminds us lest we stop noticing, “The air over Jerusalem is so saturated with prayers and dreams, it is hard to breathe.”
And through it all, and perhaps because of it, in the tangled chords we inherit from the stones, bound to so much sanctity and pain and memory, we live happy lives. The laughter of children echoes louder in ruins, and our Jerusalem overflows with children, who draw pictures of the ruins and decorate them with flowers and songs.
In the end, Jerusalem is all these things, all the stories and legends and love poems ever composed in its name, the living who celebrate and the dead with their demands.
As I have tried to do over the past few years, I offer a poem on Jerusalem Day, the day of our return, from the poet of our strange love affair with this hard, aching place. Yehudah Amichai saw beyond our narrow truths to the way our struggles and failings were absorbed by the city and transmuted into something more whole and beautiful than any of us knew. We miss him.
Jerusalem is a port city
By Yehudah Amichai
Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
The Temple Mount is a great ship, a pleasure yacht
magnificent. From the portholes of her Western Wall, jolly saints
look out, passengers. Hasidim on the pier wave
farewell, shout hurray, goodbye. She
is always arriving, always setting sail. And the fences and the platforms
and the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches
and mosques and the smokestacks of the synagogues and the dinghies
of prayer and mountain-waves. The ram’s horn sounds: another
one has set sail. Yom Kippur sailors in white uniforms
climb between ladders and ropes of proven prayers.
And the negotiations and the gates and the golden domes:
Jerusalem is the Venice of God.