After I finished House of Windows, a collection of essays written about and around the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, where I used to live, I started to muse:
Is it really possible for us to have peace?
I’m not talking about peace with the Arabs, because it’s so clear that once we have peace between the Jews, and the Jews come back to God, the war with the Arabs will disappear all by itself.
Without firing a shot.
Just as the Breslov teachings about what will happen when Moshiach actually shows up describes.
It seems to me the far harder job is to make peace between the Jews, because sometimes, we seem fractured into so many opinionated shards – each one hating the other – that I feel it’s going to take an open miracle to turn things around.
About two thirds of the way through House of Windows, the author starts having guilt pangs about the original, Arab, owners of her house, and starts the process of trying to track them down. After months spent hacking through all the bureaucracy, she discovers the name – and then something seems to have fundamentally changed in her outlook.
She admits in the book that she had no intention of ‘giving the house’ back to whoever the original owners actually were – the knowledge is not going to change anything on the ground. But what it did seem to do is to sour the secular, American-Jewish author’s feelings towards Israel and her fellow Jews.
After detouring into a minor rant about ‘messianists with guns’ from the Bronx and New Jersey taking over the country, plus some extracts of letters from the colonial Brits who clearly couldn’t stand the Jews, and especially the Jews that fought back, like Menachem Begin, the book kind of petered out.
I loved the author’s writing style, if not all of her sentiments, so I went to look up what she wrote next, and discovered it was a biography of a Palestinian poet named Taha Muhammad Ali, who wrote some very good poems that are politically not my taste at all, heavily-laced with references to God.
Now, she’s writing the biography of Ben Hecht – who wrote the classic book ‘Perfidy’ in between turning out Hollywood scripts for blockbusters like Scarface and Notorious, but the reference in the book blurb to Hecht supporting the ‘Jewish terrorist underground’ clearly got my back up again.
Next, I went to check out the reviews she got for her book on Musrara – and like mine, for the Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, they are incredibly mixed. Her one star reviewers are clearly very upset with her for favoring Arabs over Jews, and for treating the religious Jews she meets as aggressive, ogling aliens from another planet.
Meanwhile, my one star reviewers are calling me racist – for stating that Arab terrorists who like to stab people are a drawback to living in the holy city – or dissing me for talking too much about God.
So after all that, I started to ponder: is it possible for us Jews to see past all our differences, and to still respect and relate to the person, despite their different (and sometimes, disturbing) views?
I’d had such high hopes when I was half-way through that book of tracking the author down, and seeing if she’d like to swap notes on life in Musrara as viewed through the lens of an English-speaking journalist. But by the end of the book, I pondered if she’d relate to me as an alien from out of space too, just because I have a hat on my head and an abiding belief in God and His Torah.
And what about me?
How would I relate to her?
At this stage in my life, I am trying very hard to see the good in others, and to look for the ties that bind, as opposed to the disagreements that cut apart, and the shorthand labels that dismiss other Jews as ‘lunatic lefties’ (or ‘messianics with guns’). At least in theory. But in practice, it’s so much harder.
Part of me bristled when I was reading her negative account of the yeshiva students who were trying to cut down a mature tree illegally in the shared garden. But the truth is, that I also experienced things like that – chillul Hashem like that – day in and day out in Musrara. And in Meah Shearim. And in Beit Yisrael and Geula and a bunch of other places, too.
Chareidim are only human, after all. And Baal teshuva Chareidim often rush to adopt the external look of being totally ‘religious’ before their internal middot have caught up.
At the same time, the author’s attitudes towards her fellow Jews reminded me of the secular Anglo who lived upstairs from me in the slum, and who spent most of his day loudly criticizing his ‘disgusting’ religious neighbors, and their disgusting children to anyone who would listen.
Sure, he didn’t drop his trash on the floor, but he managed to bespatter the neighborhood with a potent filth of a different kind.
And me? I was in the middle of it all.
I also couldn’t stand the dirt, and the seemingly wanton neglect. But I understood it. I understood that I was dealing with people who were overwhelmed with life, and who just didn’t have the energy to pick up the trash. And on some level, I also understood the secular bigot upstairs too, because it honestly would look so much nicer if it was clean and orderly.
But who wants to hear someone criticising his neighbors in such ugly terms, day in day out?
So I circle back to the question: could me and this author get on, somehow?
We lived in the same neighborhood, we experienced such similar things, we’re both Anglo Jewish writers who were completely out of our element, we’re similar ages, we both wrote a book about life in Musrara.
Is that enough for us to relate to each other as human beings, and not stereotypes?
I’m tempted to find out.