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Jerusalem is not

On the crowded light rail, she looks out on the holy city, and asks whether competing visions will redeem or destroy it

Jerusalem is not an easy city to travel across, sometimes.

I was waiting for the light rail train near Mount Scopus, and my fellow Jerusalemites were losing their patience fast. A school girl in a mini-skirt whined, “Come on! We’re, like, waiting forever!” to a friend, and squeezed herself onto the bench. The young man she pushed, a student of architecture judging by his large folder, rolled his eyes. Next to him, an elderly lady huffed and squirmed to make room.

Perhaps, I thought, waiting is the appropriate activity for this particular location. Our waiting, measured by minutes, is but a ripple on a pond. Underneath this place’s surface, the land is saturated with decades of yearning.

For 19 years, between 1948 and 1967, Jews came to Mount Scopus to see the Western Wall from afar. They came here to cry and to hope. They were waiting.

The Western Wall itself is a place of even deeper yearning, I thought, checking the time. For thousands of years, Jews came to it to remember and to yearn. They stood in its shadow, and thought of the Temple, and hoped for a restoration of its glory.

“Prepare for the arrival of the Messiah!” proclaimed a sticker on the wall.

The train arrived, slick and shiny in the afternoon sun.

ct. of Sarah Danziger
(Sarah Danziger)

Is this what Jerusalem is all about, I asked myself, as I sat next to the girl from the station. A place of holy waiting, an incarnation of longing?

But we are here now, I reminded myself. We are more than a promise, a hint of things to come.

The train glided down the broad streets, Jewish neighborhoods to the right, Arab neighborhoods to the left. An ultra-Orthodox girl in a pleated skirt gave her seat to an old Arab man. The light reflected off his glasses, and off the pearly buttons on her shirt. The man smiled.

Is this what Jerusalem is all about, I wondered again. A place for worlds to meet, to coexist, to touch?

ct of Michael Danziger
Cultures collide in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Michael Danziger)

Or is it a place for worlds to clash?

The train passed Damascus gate. Suleiman the Magnificent built these walls, and they stand proud to this day, golden and warm under the sun. They seem serene, an island of permanence and stability, a chord of tranquility in a changing world. Almost too tranquil, I noted, when you remember the bloodshed they witnessed in their six centuries of existence. Sinister in their serenity, when you consider this past year alone.

The train turned right to Jaffa Street. Like the Jews who left the Old City in the nineteenth century, we left the walls and the holy sites behind, ascending into a modern world of shops and crowds.

The train cars were filled to capacity. Young mothers stood shoulder to shoulder with workers and students. Yet, with every stop, the car got more full still.

Jerusalem, I suddenly realized, isn’t any of the ideas I had pondered so far.

It isn’t Mount Scopus and our national waiting. It isn’t the Western Wall and our millennia of prayers. It isn’t the collision of cultures or the coexistence of faiths. It isn’t the young religious girl and the Arab man, bound by an act of kindness, and a smile, under the setting sun.

Or rather — Jerusalem isn’t only these things, because none of them can encompass all that this city can be.

Jerusalem is a modern train car, filled to the brim with very different people, passing by the landmarks of our past. Each of these people has his or her own “my Jerusalem”.

My Jerusalem is introspective walks down the German Colony, where bougainvilleas color the alleys and eucalyptuses sway. It is that moment when I see the Old City from afar, and feel oddly at home. It’s that moment when I see the new city, and feel the old one behind me, like an extension of my self.

A view of the new city from the old. Ct of Michael Danziger
A view of the new city from the old. (Michael Danziger)

But my Jerusalem wouldn’t be Jerusalem if it were only these experiences. Jerusalem is also the Jerusalem of the old Arab man, and the Jerusalem of the girl, and the Jerusalem of the student of architecture. It’s all of their “my Jerusalems,” complete with the hopes they ignite and the memories they evoke. Jerusalem wouldn’t be Jerusalem if it weren’t all of that at once.

This train car, I thought, encapsulates what this city is: a collection of disparate people and beliefs, sharing a space and a future, though they envision their destination in very different ways. And often, I reminded myself, our visions clash.

So often we want our own versions and visions of Jerusalem to prevail at the expense of other visions. So many of us want their “my Jerusalem” to take over.

But what would such victories do to Jerusalem? To us?

The train turned left on Herzl Street. Herzl envisioned a Judenstaat, a Jews’ state. His dream became our crazy, colorful reality. It became a state full of people and dreams.

This train car, I thought, captures more than Jerusalem’s reality. It encapsulates the basic problem of the Jewish state: Israel gathered more than the exiles. It gathered seemingly incompatible ideas about what we are and what we should be. It gathered seemingly contradictory dreams.

As we ride towards our future, we have a choice. We can fight each other’s visions until the train car falls apart, or we can prioritize our togetherness, “our Israel” and “our Jerusalem” over one-sided victories.

“Mount Herzl Station,” announced the recorded voice, and I got off the train.

I looked around.

This city, like this state, is great because it isn’t (only, merely) mine.

It’s ours, and I hope to keep it this way.

And if you will it, it is no dream.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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