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Discovering Secular Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

There is something about Jerusalem that seizes the imagination when you first come upon it. I have been traveling there for over four decades, ever since I was a child, and I never fail to be surprised by my first glimpse of the place, the way it appears without fanfare as you drive southeast from Ben Gurion International Airport, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, into the Judean Hills. From the road you see the arid landscape begin to curve and stretch and grow more lush as the car, still in the valley, begins to climb. Eventually, the view is all-embracing, with miles of green hills, red-tiled roofs, and open skies off in the distance.

It is a city of singularly spartan beauty, built entirely out of different shades of native stone—yellow, pink, and gray—and pocked with scrubby growth as well as sudden, random bursts of bougainvillea, forsythia, and honeysuckle. For an ancient city, Jerusalem is enamored of the new: luxury apartment buildings under construction loom at odd intersections, with an eye to American and European Jews who look to buy second homes here. (Sadly, many of these apartment buildings are fated to remain unoccupied for most of the year, giving certain sections of Jerusalem an increasingly ghostly aspect.) Olive trees, pines, firs, and small maples dot the land, speaking to the city’s hardy survivalist ethos, and everywhere you look is sky, which appears to hang lower here than it does in the West. I have never arrived in Jerusalem without feeling an intensification of ordinary emotions, as though the light, shimmering over the hills, carried with it a weight all its own. Call it the weight of history: that would be the obvious connection for a city that is close to 4,000 years old and whose existence has been documented—and contested—ever since biblical times.

Jerusalem is best known, of course, for its international standing as a religious destination for flocks of the pious. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers each have their claim on parts of the city: the Western Wall is here, as is the grave from which Jesus is said to have risen, as is the Dome of the Rock, as is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I myself made my first trip here as a 10-year-old with my family on a kosher cruise ship called the Shalom as a way of connecting with the Zionist dream that was important to both my parents but particularly to my mother, whose family had emigrated to Jerusalem in 1936 to escape Hitler’s scourge.

Although my mother left Palestine a year before the new state of Israel was declared in 1948, and eventually settled in New York City, her heart remained tied to the land where her family first found refuge. Indeed, during my childhood she sang Hebrew lullabies, one of which dated from her own youth and was composed to celebrate the ideal of a Jewish homeland. As a little girl I loved this particular song and would lie in bed listening raptly to its mournful tune and hopeful lyrics. It began by imitating the whistling sound of an approaching boat, packed with Jewish pioneers coming from far and wide to build a new nation. I was a somewhat timid child, but all the same I found myself identifying with this intrepid group, carrying pails and shovels across vast distances as easily as if they were going off to the neighborhood playground. As I began to drift off toward sleep, I would envision myself signing up, shedding my schoolgirl clothes and urban pallor for the safari-flavored outfit and bronzed complexion of a genuine chalutz (pioneer), taking off for foreign and possibly hazardous shores. When I became a mother myself, I sang this lullaby to my daughter in turn; her own first trip to Israel took place when she flew in a baby carrier next to me on one of El Al’s overcrowded and noisy planes.


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