Israel’s late, much-loved poet Yehuda Amichai said it best:
The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over industrial cities
It is hard to breathe….
I felt it, too, when I first came to live in Jerusalem more than thirty years ago. I was born into the laid-back lifestyle of Australia, land of sunshine, wide-open spaces, beaches and barbecues. Jerusalem, by contrast, was oppressive. The people were somber, laughter was rare. Life was so serious.
It frightened me. I could stand on the corner of a street and hear half-a-dozen languages spoken. I could see old ladies shuffling by, still wearing the faded costumes of lost communities. Soon I’d see a tourist, a soldier, a school child, a monk in a brown habit, a chassid in a black hat, with his long peyot (side curls) swinging as he walked.
Nobody was ordinary. I saw every category of saints and sinners, beggars, artists and poets. I too found it hard to breathe.
It took many, many years before I felt part of the landscape. There were wars and terror attacks, demonstrations and parades. Everything that happened somehow bonded me slowly to this unique city.
When I first came here, I didn’t understand the oft-quoted rabbinic aphorism “Ten measures of beauty came to the world, and nine were taken by Jerusalem.” Where were they? They were not evident like the snow-clad peaks in Switzerland, or the lakes in Wordsworth’s daffodil county, or the gondolas and canals of Venice, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
There was nothing that made you suddenly gasp at a spot so beautiful it was forever etched on you memory.
Today I see the beauty. It is in the pearly dawns. It is in the grey stones, gilded when the sun shines. It is in the Western Wall, where sorrowful hearts pour out their hopes and dreams and fears to their Creator. It is in the modest homes that, however poor, nevertheless house silver Sabbath candelabra and shelves of holy books. It is in the eyes and faces of people in the street who have made a commitment to live in this spiritual city.
Only in Jerusalem do I fall under this spell. Nothing here is trivial. Everything one does is significant. We feel the full weight of history as we walk the stones once trodden by kings and martyrs and warriors. Jerusalem is not just a city – it is an emotion. It saturates every fiber of our being. It captures our soul and never lets us go.
Jews and gentiles alike have always felt this magnetic pull toward the Holy City. It is written in Midrash Tehillim 91:7: “Praying in Jerusalem is like praying before the Throne of Glory, for the gate of heaven is there.” Every Jew who prays at the Western Wall feels an unusual closeness to God. Judah Stampfer, in his book Jerusalem Has Many Faces (1950) expressed it poetically:
I have seen a city chiselled out of moonlight,
Its buildings beautiful as silver foothills,
While universes shimmered in its corners.
There are a number of enchanting cities in the world, and I have visited many of them – Venice, Avignon, Bruges, Hong Kong, Paris. They all have a magic that transforms the senses.
Yet there is something extra in Jerusalem that I cannot define. It is a beautiful city, yes, but there are many that exceed it. It is dignified, ancient, historic – but these are adjectives that can be applied to cities like London and Rome.
Jerusalem is a state of mind even more than a place. It arouses dormant passions. It nurtures the soul. It is spiritual and inspiring.
I spent much of my life in my birthplace, Melbourne, and at one time lived a few years in London, another city I loved. But now, should someone ask, “Where would you most like to live?” the answer lies ready on my lips: “Only in Jerusalem….”