When my family got ‘frum’, when I was around 16, I started reading a whole lot of biographies and stories by interesting Baal Teshuvas. In nearly every case, Jerusalem had a starring role. People would be surfing, studying for university, back-packing in some 3rd world country, and somehow, the call of Jerusalem would reach them, and they’d stop everything to come and answer it.
If they were writing a book for Baal Teshuvas, it always meant that they’d got hooked on Jerusalem, on holiness, on G-d, on yiddishkeit, and that now they were here to stay.
I used to get very starry-eyed about the Holy City portrayed in those books: a place of quiet simplicity, homemade challot, tzaddikim on every corner, and colourful, real people who’d sacrificed every aspect of ‘normal’ and ‘comfortable’ to follow their souls towards G-d.
Of course, after living in Israel for 9 1/2 years, I kind of forgot all that starry-eyed stuff, and Jerusalem became much more a place where I could find long skirts, kosher ‘mehadrin’ falafel and a great zoo.
When we moved here in the Summer, that vision of ‘Jerusalem, past’ got even more blown to smithereens. My neighbours were dutch goyim; the Old City was a war zone; and my own striving for spirituality got so severely curtailed it almost evaporated.
A few days’ back, someone lent me a book to read called ‘I remembered in the night your name’, by Varda Branfman. It was a collection of short stories and poems, based around the author’s experience of making teshuva in the 70s, and coming to live – where else? – in Jerusalem.
There were a couple of things that caught my attention in the book; the main one for this post is that she was describing the holiness and simplicity of the Jerusalem neighbourhood called Geula.
I nearly fell off my chair.
Geula is a 10 minute walk from me, via Meah Shearim, and ‘holy’ and ‘simple’ are not the first words that spring to mind. Try: ‘glatt pizza’; ‘clothing stores’; ‘hustle and bustle’; ‘trendy opticians’; and ‘Brooklyn Bake Shop’.
I go to Geula to spend money, and that’s about it. It’s always been one of the least spiritually inspiring neighbourhoods in Jerusalem.
So I was stunned by the author’s description of it. Was I just not seeing all the holiness there, or has it changed beyond all recognition in the last two decades?
Varda’s book reminded me of all those ‘BT biographies’ I used to read, and I suddenly got a lump in my throat about ‘Jerusalem, past’. I remembered how I yearned to be here, 25 years’ ago, and how I was sure it was full of holy, crazy, friendly, amazing people, that would invite anyone and anything for Shabbat, and literally exude ‘connection to G-d’ and spiritual inspiration.
Now I actually live here, and I wonder what happened?
Does that place still exist, and I just haven’t found it yet? Or did it disappear under all the ‘gashmius’ and 5 star apartment complexes?
I don’t know what the answer is. But it gave me renewed strength to start searching again. Jerusalem IS the holy city; even with all the face-lifts, and all the xtians, and all the politics and all the pizza, somewhere underneath all that, is a city of spiritual gold.
And now, I’m on a mission to rediscover it.