I was sitting at my window in Abu Tor one year ago, when a class of schoolgirls wearing pink and purple sat on white stone just across Naomi Street. Three stories below, they began to sing of Jerusalem – “a violin for all your songs.”
Indeed it is. This holy city is a muse. And here where David wrote Psalms, I too have found words as I have nowhere else.
They were simple words at first. After high school, I spent a year in a yeshiva in a Jerusalem suburb and wrote nightly in my journal the thoughts of an eighteen-year-old – of books and ball, girls and God. I wrote and wrote until May 16, 1990 – the very day I most needed to but could not because a runaway truck had struck the bus I was sitting in and paralyzed me.
My pen-holding hand had long since returned to life when, after college, I returned to Jerusalem with my cane and ankle brace and journal too, picking up in its pages where I had left off four years before: at the crash. I investigated it as a journalist would an article – finding photos of the crash, the paramedic who saved me. But I was just 23. And when, at the end of the year, I then returned to New York, I saw that if I had amassed information, I could not yet assimilate it.
I was 40 years old when last year, I returned to Jerusalem to again try and understand the place of the crash in my life. And I had a plan. So as to at last get down onto paper what I had wanted but failed to many times before, I would root my writing, chapter by chapter, in Israel – the land where my neck was broken and where I had always been able to write.
And so, I did! Some of those roots grew in places. I wrote of Motza, where the crash happened and of Talpiot, where I used a wheelchair for the last time and of Bnei Brak, where I found my fellow passengers in the bus and of Mevasseret Tzion, where I was looking, high on a hilltop, when my neck broke.
But more often, my little chapters rooted themselves into Israel in metaphorical ways, this land offering up to me connections and epiphanies.
When I saw a groom stamp glass on a Jerusalem sidewalk, I remembered the broken glass of the crash and knew that it is easier to get over a lost body than a lost soul.
When I came upon the Valley of Hinnom where pagans had once sacrificed children, I remembered another hell where I and the rest of the damned were bled of hope.
When a scientist told me of an ancient slumbering seed, a Judean date palm, that she had germinated, I remembered being returned to life and wondered of the burdens of incalculable care.
When I held an idol unearthed by archeologists in the ancient City of David, I remembered another buried body, the teen I had been, and wondered if the facts we conjure from the dead are true.
And when I stood before an old windmill in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe that had no wind and no mill, I wondered aloud if it was still a windmill and if I was who I had been.
Months later, I had gotten my answer, come to understand that this mill had found new life where there had only been the physical, when, shockingly, the sails of the mill began to turn after remaining still for some 150 years. The mill had been resurrected by Dutch Christians. And I had been resurrected too, had found in Jerusalem the words that had eluded me elsewhere.
As the poet Else Lasker-Schüler wrote: “Palestine obliges!!!”
Read an exclusive excerpt of Joshua Prager’s Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck.