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Jerusalem of iron

On the jubilation of return and the cost of clinging to a place that is holy to so many
Israelis wave national flags as they take part in an annual march marking Israel's 1967 capture and subsequent annexation of the eastern half of Jerusalem, outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on June 5, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
Israelis wave national flags as they take part in an annual march marking Israel's 1967 capture and subsequent annexation of the eastern half of Jerusalem, outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on June 5, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

Everyone knows the old Naomi Shemer classic “Jerusalem of Gold.”

The language is so poignant it hurts: in wine-clear mountain air, in the slumber of tree and stone, as spirits (or winds; the Hebrew word is the same) howl through empty caves on the rocky mountainside, in all that sleepy sadness, a city made of gold, copper and light sits forlorn, abandoned, cleaved in twain by a border wall.

The song is new (what are 50 years in the history of Jerusalem?), but its sentiment is the oldest Jewish belief about this city: that it feels, that it misses us.

And, indeed, the song sends grappling hooks deep into the ancient tradition. Its second verse begins with the word “eicha,” an old rendering of the Hebrew word “how.” No Israeli Jew can fail to remember that this word is also the name and the beginning of the Biblical book of Lamentations, in Hebrew “the Scroll of Eicha.”

“How lonely sits the city that was once so populous, like a widow,” weeps the book’s author, according to tradition the tormented prophet Jeremiah, in his opening verse.

Jerusalem is thickly layered with the devotions of the past. It’s impossible to walk its living, noisy streets without these memories encroaching uncomfortably on the present. Like a visit to the site of a great personal tragedy, the memory and the reality shift in and out of sight, mix and merge and tug at the heart. It’s not a trick of the imagination. Pain and love are sticky; they cling to a place, a smell, a word, even across generations. Jerusalem has seen so much of both that there is hardly a corner that doesn’t cry out from some other time.

And Jerusalem is hardly less demanding for those of us who live here than for the millions of tourist-pilgrims who come to see what all the fuss is about. It is our stake in the ground, our plot of home, where ancient heroes and villains set the terms of reference for our present-day heroes and villains.

In the end, we are all archaeologists. To be born here is no liberation. We all come to Jerusalem, by car, plane or womb, on a search. We all want to excavate, to sift from the layers of human struggle, from the fevered spiritual imaginations of those who came before, a kernel of meaning, of recognition, of belonging.

It’s a small thing, when you think about it. All of us Jews and Muslims and Christians, American visitors in their hotel bathrooms, young soldiers on their sweaty patrols, all of us jostling for air, hoping for comfort in this asthmatic city, this city whose generations pass in remembrance and expectation, in bated breath, in war and terror and fevered dreams of peace.

For Jerusalem knows the truth about us, about all of us: that we don’t love our children enough. And that’s why we pray that Jerusalem, the weeping widow, the yearning mother, loves them when we fail.

For this dream called “Jerusalem” is always being broken, always crashing against the shoals of our petty lofty desires.

Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” was written on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, when the city was riven in two, with a Jordanian army in the east sealing its holy places to the Jews in the west. This place of dreams seemed unbearably close yet out of reach. We were not yet worthy, the poet concluded: “I am younger than your youngest son, than the last of your poets.”

In the immediate aftermath of the war, as our soldiers walked along the Western Wall, atop the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah, the foundation-stone of the world, our longing was replaced by the jubilation of return (and, less nobly, of triumph), a jubilation we still feel, even now, 49 years later. The Palestinian conflict is unresolved, the world is as bitter and merciless as ever. Still, we are home. There are few truly complete comforts in life; the fulfillment of this shred of redemptive prophecy is one of them.

But we Israelis cannot completely escape the present. There is a cost to all this dreaming, to listening so intently to our ancient yearnings, to clinging to a place that is holy to so many others.

After the war, Meir Ariel wrote a new version of Shemer’s song, a version that for a brief time was as popular as the original. It was a song about a Jerusalem trampled by blood and iron and war, a song sung to the same melody as Shemer’s, but with a dark cynicism that comes from knowing there is more at stake in this struggle for our beloved Jerusalem than sentiment.

Jerusalem of iron

In your dark places, Jerusalem,
we found a loving heart
as we came to broaden your borders
and overthrow the enemy.
We had our fill of his mortars,
and dawn broke suddenly –
it had just risen, not yet white
and was already red.

Jerusalem of iron,
and of lead, and of blackness,
have we not declared your walls liberated?

The shelled battalion broke ahead,
all covered in blood and smoke,
and mother after mother
joined the hosts of the bereaved.
Biting its lips, fatigued,
the battalion kept fighting,
till the flag was finally replaced
above the museum.

Jerusalem of iron,
and of lead, and of blackness,
have we not declared your walls liberated?

The king’s battalions are scattered,
the sniper’s tower is silent
now the way is open to the Dead Sea
by the Jericho road.
Now the Temple Mount is open
and the Western Wall,
here you are in the light of dusk
almost all of you gold.

Jerusalem of iron,
and of lead, and of blackness,
have we not declared your walls liberated?

* * *

This is not a protest song. Naomi Shemer herself came to love the cynical iconoclasm of these words. This is, simply, what it feels like to be awakened from a dream. By war.

What can one make of such a place, whose ancient name might be translated, “city of peace,” or even “city of completion?” Everything about it, its ugliness and beauty, the crimes committed in its name and the love that saturates its warm stones, the gold and the iron, the light and the darkness, all of it is true.

On Jerusalem Day 5776, it seems too cheap and easy to sing Jerusalem’s praises. Jerusalem is too old and too beautiful for monotonous praise. Perhaps we no longer need to soar like eagles through your alleyways and among your steeples and domes, O Jerusalem. Maybe it is enough, on Jerusalem Day, the day of our return, simply to be home.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
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