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My city, my womb

It’s hard to explain the holy city to those who have never felt its lovely madness in their blood
Jaffa Road, just off Zion Square, Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa Road, just off Zion Square, Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jerusalem, I thought once. Jerusalem, you will bury me.

You will be my grave.

But the words were more than a thought. They were the muscles clenching through my limbs, curling them onto themselves, as the bus left Sha’ar Ha’gai behind and started climbing towards my city. They were my lungs, and the effort of breathing into them, as the bus lumbered and the engine coughed. They were the sense of friction between my flesh and the air as we lurched over bumps and sped onward. They were constriction. They were the taste of strangulation in my mouth.

I was coming home from yet another week of national service in beautiful Beit Shean, where the air was open opportunities and new vistas and clean hopes. Jerusalem loomed above me on the mountain. And as she did whenever I came home to her, my city started seeping back into my flesh.

Welcome home, she thrummed within my speeding heart beat, to where we fight and dream and argue, ever fierce. Welcome home, she clawed into my tensing shoulders and within them, to where we’re crucified by history, to where the future is a thing to kill for, or to die.

Home, sang the curves of the road beneath me. Home, answered everything I am within.

I rode into Jerusalem exultant. I walked off the bus into a city that’s a dance.

It’s hard to explain Jerusalem to those who never felt her. They may have visited, they may have stayed awhile. But have they ever heard her call within their bones? Have they ever felt her arms closing hot and strong around their insides, demanding much, and burning up with love?

I rode past the stones of Suleiman’s walls on that day, and the sunlight lay calm and pretty on their flatness. But it was not the stones that felt the light’s mockery, the unbearable weight of its very lightness. It was I. Because I saw this lovely light and knew: Many a sunsets lay just so over these stones in times of slaughter. And the stones shone red then, red and raw.

I rode past a dirty alley that seemed to reek of Jeremiah’s Lamentations. But it was not the broken walls that rejoiced under their mournful garments. It was I. For in their very brokenness I saw the fox that made Rabbi Akiva laugh.

“God died for us,” proclaimed a wild-eyed woman from Korea as I walked through Zion Square. “The Rabbi is the Messiah and God!” yelled a man in black some storefronts later, right by the beautiful woman working her magic on a harp.

I hear you, I whispered back. I hear you in these voices, my city. I hear you in their earnestness, in their devotion, in their faith.

It’s hard to explain Jerusalem to those who never felt her, to those who never knew her lovely madness in their blood.

We who have felt her will shed our blood for her if need be. But we will also live and laugh and run through her streets playing tag with our children, because our flesh and blood belong with her, and the merriment feels right. And while the sounds of storming armies might echo in our running, we won’t stop to listen, we won’t halt to reflect. We will be too busy laughing, and we don’t need to constantly recall our city’s history. Not when we feel her many flavors on our tongues.

Our tongues that won’t cleave to the roofs of our mouths, O Jerusalem, because we can never forget you, nor remember-you-not.

Jerusalem, you will be my grave, I thought once. But the words were inadequate, imperfect, incomplete.

They failed to grasp the joy she gives me. They failed to touch her grace in spring, or the children playing by her ruins. They failed to speak of shining hopes and laughing eyes and dancing steps.

Jerusalem, you are earnestness, you are struggle, you are are both ecstasy and stark constriction.

You are a place of memory and bright horizons that take work.

Jerusalem, I think now, and I miss her. You taste of life, my city. You are no grave, beloved. You’re a womb.

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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