Our teacher crouched under the low, stone ledge. All we could see were his wrinkled ageless hands which periodically reached out as though they caressed the dust that surrounded him.
He had arranged for us to meet before dawn on the west slope of the hill overlooking the buildings on the other side of the little ravine. As the sun slipped over the hilltop, all that lay before us to the west turned from pink to gold.
Calling out to us to come near in his creaking ancient voice, he picked up a rock and drew something in the dirt: a line in the shape of a Tet . Some of us stepped too close and he hit their feet as they stepped on the line. Finally as we all stood around the line he'd drawn he started his lesson. When he spoke he always had the ability to transport us to a different time or place.
Look, he said of his drawing, it almost has the shape of a heart. Its easiest connections, the easiest way to get into it (like a heart) come from above, here where you see I've left it open. Also like a heart, it is divided in two, but the two halves need (almost feed) each other. The heart shares its coloration in common also. In fact, not many years ago a blind writer from a distant land groped his way along its passages and exclaimed that they are pink because of their peculiar "touch." The juices of life flow out from here to feed the universe. But it was probably the waters that fed the fields in the valleys below that allowed us to get in using a trick like the Greeks used to capture Troy.
That night, as the moon shone the Jebusites paraded the lame and blind of their city along its walls. Maybe this was their way of beseeching help from their god, but we felt that they taunted us saying that even if only these people defended the city David could not capture it. Little did they know that we had already entered. The task was hard. We climbed up through the dark wet tunnels as the irrigating water flowed down our backs. By the time we reached the inside and gathered together we were soaking, even our leather armor was drenched and heavy from the water. The Jebusites never knew how we got in.
This was the last of the ancient Canaanite cities. Our people had not conquered it. From the time of Joshua till that day, hundreds of years it had remained in our midst almost at the center of our land. We had been here before. One of my teachers taught that the huge flat rock that emerges from the earth just north of here formed the foundation of the earth at creation. He told us that Abraham met the king of Salem here and brought Isaac to this place to offer him to God. My teacher called it the center of the universe, the navel or tabbur ha-aretz. That is good, but a childlike metaphor. The earth is fed through the navel before birth. But our life has progressed. We no longer need feeding, we need a pulsating, feeling heart.
David made this little town his capital. He wanted to build the Temple on the Rock, but God would not let him. God told him that the temple had to wait for his son Solomon a man of peace not a man whose life had been shaped by war.
The old teacher paused, we peeked under the shelf and saw that he had closed his eyes. The dry air burnt our nostrils as we sat in the hot sun at the beginning of autumn. The rains had not yet started. In the darkness where he lay it appeared as though water flowed; moss grew under the roof of the shelf! As though he was climbing into the ancient city while he lay before us!
His eyes sprung open and he splashed us with some of the cold water in which he lay and continued: Conquering the walls was the easy part, making it a real city where people grew in peace has been an unending struggle. Most of our national anthology was written here. That wonderful book that the world has accepted as its own. Unlike the books of other people among whom we lived, it is not the literature of a major or regional power nor even of a ruling elite, but the literature of a minor, people -- and not the literature of its rulers, but of its critics. The scribes and the prophets of Jerusalem refused to accept the world as it was. They invented the literature of political dissent and, with it, the literature of hope. Our great writers of those ancient times: Isaiah and Micah, wrote here: "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks!" Later rabbis imagined her, as a place where no woman ever miscarried and no one was ever stung either by serpent or scorpion, rain never doused the fires of the woodpile on the altar and no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers, who stood pressed together and yet bowed themselves with ease!
But will that ever happen? Where are the plows? Where are the pruning hooks? [He asked with a sigh.]
No city has been fought for by so many peoples over the ages. The ancient Babylonians destroyed our little city, carted us off to sit by the banks of their river and there we wept! We returned only to defend it again and again. In the past nineteen hundred years alone, the controlling power and the major religion changed at least thirteen times usually with great loss of life:
Few other cities have such a record.
And the Wars of Religion continue here under another name. People tell me my home is a necrocracy, the only city where the vote is given to the dead. Look at me, I appear to have come from the dead and everywhere here you can see the heavy weight of the past on the present. For our people, she has always been the Capital of Memory... this place epitomizes the power of memory over us.
Memory gave us our culture and identity. Many other people occupied lands and cities and then lost or abandoned them. But they did not remember. We remember! We never forgot our home. Nothing remotely like this happened to any other vanquished people in the ancient Mediterranean world. Under the iron skies of northern Europe, the our festivals remained tied to the seasons of the land. Passover ends with the call "Next year in Jerusalem." For centuries, we turned in prayer toward this spot three times a day and called out: "Return in mercy to your city Jerusalem and dwell in it as you have promised; rebuild it soon, in our own days. Praised are you, O Adonai, builder of Jerusalem."
For too long, all we had were memories. Not long ago one of our great poets Yehuda Amichai told me this is a city where "all remember they have forgotten something. The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams like the air over industrial cities. It's hard to breathe."
But finally we have begun to rebuild. Just as thousands of years ago Uziahu built and strengthened towers in Jerusalem. Today, as well, we build. But, you cannot build with indifference here. It requires either an act of arrogance, aggression or humility. Arrogance--building boldly as Solomon and Herod did. Aggression--demolishing the old fabric and building anew as the Romans and the Umayyads did Humility--absorbing the past, reflecting upon it, respecting it, as one considers the present and the future.
Our teacher splashed us once more then eased himself out from his hiding place. As he stood the water evaporated from his clothes and skin. The vapor rose off him as the dew does on the pavement when the hot summer morning sun sneaks over the tree tops.
As he stretched he sang:
The shrine whose shape I am
Has a fringe of fire
Flames skirt my skin
There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tide of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might.
I know many hills were holy once
But now in the level lands to live
Zion ground down must become marrow
Thus in my bones I am the King's child
And through death's terrain I go
Making my own procession[Samuel Menashe
The Shrine Whose Shape I Am
(Originally published in No Jerusalem But This
[Out of Print.])
The Niche Narrows
Used by permission (telephone conversation 6 June, 2001).]
Ah building! Just the other day, one of our builders (Moseh Safdie) told me: Jerusalem is a world city. Yet it is also the capital of our state. Certain factions of our society want to Judaize--to increase the Jewish presence--at the expense of others in the city. We must resist this. It would eventually destroy Jerusalem as a world city, And, (he told me) I say that not just as a humanist, but as an urbanist and an Israeli. When the city was divided, each half was an intolerably parochial place. For Jerusalem to survive as a unique place in the world, we need to protect the conditions for the growth of all these groups.
Look, there goes another tour, let's hear what the guide has to say! Listen carefully:
"You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there is an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head."
But that's Yehuda sitting with the baskets. Come what has he bought.
"Good, you've brought me more students. Did you hear what that guide said...?"
"Well, I wanted to interrupt him and tell him that redemption will come only if you guides say: 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important; but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'"
Yehuda offered us fresh apples and pomegranates for the new year and our teacher turned to us and whispered:
For Zion's sake I will not keep silence; for Jerusalem's sake I will speak out, until her light shines forth like the sunrise, her deliverance like a blazing torch.
Let the wilderness and the thirsty land be glad, let the desert rejoice and burst into flower.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
On those who dwelt in a land dark as death, a great light has dawned.