The sounds of Jerusalem

The cacophony of constant building in the holy city reveals a foundation of hope that trumps every siren of terror

Every city has its sounds, rhythms and pace that you either get used to or don’t. Jerusalem’s hullabaloo is radically different from the highway traffic of Johannesburg, or the fresh sea breezes of Sydney. Sounds don’t lie. Jerusalem is the orchestra pit of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Every imposing, ornately grand building is a Church with chiming bells that punctuates a yoga class. Their deep tone ringing in and out of the city’s sounds, a reverberating reminder for the Christian devotees to pray.

Then you have the thunderous, passionate cry of the Muezzin, five times a day, from the heights of the minaret, echoing through the sandstone dwellings, calling to Muslim worshippers. It wakes me up in the dark, sonorant in the quiet night, joined only by the yowling of feral street cats. And as I toss and turn, trying to get back to sleep, I wonder if it’s true what I heard, that the loud cry at night is a recording and the Muezzin is cozy in his bed with ear plugs.

And then as I have trouble falling back to sleep I question, “What are the uniquely Jewish sounds in Jerusalem?” In Elul and on Rosh Hashanah, we have the vigorous blowing of the shofar that wakes us up from our slumber of unconsciousness. But day to day, week to week, besides the Shabbat siren that alarms us to the entrance of the Sabbath Queen, there doesn’t seem to be any particularly religious sounds.

So I begin to listen hard for the Jewish Jerusalem sounds, and this is what I hear, sirens. Yes, sirens, every bit as sonorous and urgent as the clanging bells and the Muezzin’s euphonious calls. Sirens that make us all sit up, grab our phones and check what the latest news update is. Sirens that make me examine my life and pray to God that every one is safe, and thank God that I am too. The longer the sirens last, the more deeply we go into prayer, the more we look one to another for reassurance, for kindness, for togetherness. And as the latest news updates load onto our cellphones our hearts tear in a way that the deepest Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur can’t achieve. We were all praying for it to be the sirens of a woman being taken to give birth; don’t let it be a terror attack.

My friend described to me how she was driving when the bus this week blew up in Talpiot. She saw the black smoke circling to the sky like sacrificial smoke. The korbanot of a people returning to their homeland. The sirens rebounding through the television screens of horrified onlookers. The memory of past intifadas being resurrected, and their ghosts reappearing and re-mourned.

We are at the doorsteps of the festival of Passover, where God passed over our door posts in Egypt to free us and take us to Israel. Then we were slaves, today we have a choice as to whether we are slaves or not. Slaves to hate, slaves to violence, or free to choose peace, love and belief in today. We are tottering at our doorposts, fighting the feelings of despair as we wonder how we can have peace when there’s a clear intention to destroy. How do you gather in the peaceful of all faiths so that we can dwell in peace?

I shared with a good and wise friend my theory that the Jewish sound of Jerusalem is sirens. She begged to differ, and said that when she’s in Jerusalem what she hears is the cacophony of building. And so I listened again, and, while I still hear sirens, I have to agree with her that the sounds of drilling, banging, and jack hammering are everywhere. On every street, in every yoga class that is the sound. A very Jewish sound, the sound of building.

It’s the most optimistic, true sound of Jerusalem and all of Israel. That out of the ashes we can still build. That my grandparents who were displaced from Baghdad, arriving in Pardes Channah in the early 50s, with one suitcase between their family of seven, could build a successful life from the tin shanty town that they were dumped in. Such building, on the foundations of forgiveness, with the faith of today for a better tomorrow, is the sound I was brought up with. These truly are the sounds of Jerusalem that drown out the sirens if I stand still, take a deep breath and listen.

About the Author
Sarah Sassoon is a freelance writer, Jewish thinker and wandering Jew. Emigrating from Sydney Australia to Johannesburg, South Africa and finally making Aliyah to Jerusalem with her family this summer of 2015.