I was thinking today that there must be a Jerusalem in each of us--a wry, complex, winding place full of mystery and surprises. Regularly, I have wondered if this Jerusalem, this dark and whimsical place in the middle of the desert was a part of me long before I came to realize it? I have very distinct memories of the mildly precocious child version of myself, the one who used to crawl out of her bedroom window at night to lie on the wet grass in order to have very vocal (albeit one-sided) conversations with G-d. I remember telling G-d about my worries concerning the fragility of life, its finite nature and its infinite possibilities long before most children realize that life exists beyond the confines of the world that is known to them. To me, the complete subjectivity of what was known was just as interesting than what was unknown. I was a historian as well as an explorer. Perhaps some things never change. I wonder if Jerusalem was also a part of me then?
If there is a Jerusalem in each of us, my Jerusalem is this: It is the place that I wrap my arms around when I am here, even though its sharp edges hurt me sometimes. Similarly, it is the place that I miss the most when I am gone, even though I am ostensibly cooler, cleaner and (much) safer when I am allowing myself to be lulled by the fuzzily wrapped, golden handcuffs of American life. Between here and there and all of the odd conundrums and glaring contradictions in between, there are moments when I realize that this Jerusalem is the place where I have come to know and simultaneously evade myself and my personal truths. It would be arrogant to say that Jerusalem is the place where I figured it all out, but in many ways, perhaps this is true. (At least, for now.) And perhaps it is a bit cheeky to admit that Jerusalem is the place I have come to hide from certain external realities in my "real life". Though a reality unto itself, Jerusalem will always be the place where time and space are distinctly suspended. Indeed, it is a very real place--perhaps too real?--where the cacophony of oddities and orthodoxies co-exist in a rough and uneven harmony of human struggle.
Jerusalem. For all of its imminent and existential dangers, it has been the safe place where I have been allowed the indulgence of forging something new for myself while communing with the soulful part of me that feels as though it has seen and done all of this before. Still the child beneath the stars on a patch of Virginia grass, I have had the freedom to exist lightly in a place of darkness. Somewhere between the dust and sunshine that existed long before I was even conscious of beginning, I have come here to be a small part of the narrative as it unfolds. It is both my narrative and the narrative of the world. More than just a practically delineated latitude and longitude, Jerusalem for me is the place within the place. I have found myself flung here, so far way from where I began, only to feel my way along the Brailled ribbon of self-awareness from the very end of what I have known...back to the very beginning.
I would be lying if I said that I have not considered cashing in my hand and staying here forever. After all, there is an inescapable realness to living on the razor's edge, which satiates my little addiction to authenticity. There is a certain rawness contained in the evidence of knowing at the visceral level that every day you live in this Jerusalem, every choice you make, every street you cross, every bus you ride...could be your very last. And yet, like any strong addiction, where some people find this way of being far too freakish, dark and maddening, I have found it a far more bearable way to exist. Where the past is fixed and the future is uncertain, the Kundera-esque, lightness of being comes from living in earnest, in the honesty of the moment.
Yet, I realize too that Jerusalem for me was never an end in itself. It was for now and not forever. No less, the love affair was a vital and important one, but Jerusalem is not the one I will wake up loving for the rest of my life. Like any good lusty affair of physical need and emotional hunger, I have always known the magic of me and this Jerusalem would be lost if I attempted to domesticate it. Equally so, in the end I know that the lightness of heart I have regained from being here more recently would be lost if I allowed myself to think for a minute that this Jerusalem will ever be enough to domesticate me.
And so I allow it to hold me in a quiet, last embrace. I walk through its empty streets on my final Shabbat, noticing the sounds and smells of a place that has become a part of me. When I finally reach its Western Wall, the memories of my first moments in Jerusalem (in 2006) find their way to the nostalgic lump in my throat. I take out the little notebook that has been with me since that time, and read the quote I jotted down during the preliminary hours of my very first trip to the Holy Land. From Bruce Feiler's "Walking the Bible":
"Abraham was not originally the man he became. He was not an Israelite, he was not a Jew. He was not even a believer in G-d--at least initially. He was a traveler, called by some voice not entirely clear that said: Go, head to this land, walk along this route, and trust what you will find."
I carefully tear the quote from my notebook. I fold the faded lined paper in my hand until it is a small, flat ball, just the right size to fit into one of the grooves of stone. I silently say my prayers of acknowledgment, hope and thanks. And, like so many others before me and to come, I leave this small, prophetic testament to my pilgrimage behind to be a part of the timeless and sustaining energy of this holiest of holy retaining walls of sand and stone.
In the end, I am not the woman I was when began making my way to this Jerusalem. Indeed, I am no longer the agnostic, self-identified researcher who never once dreamed of becoming so much a part of her subject of inquiry. Much like Abraham, I was not an Israelite, and never would have felt completely comfortable with the label of "Jew". But I came anyway and I learned. More than the politics and languages of this land, I learned about the soulfulness of this violent place that connects heaven to earth in such haphazard ways. I connected easily. Perhaps too easily? Although none of this was ever linear and or without struggle, I learned more about myself than ever before.
Of course, I came alone and left alone. And the moments in between when I was in the company of others, I will never claim that I didn't stop to wonder at times if I shouldn't chuck it all now and go back to the life of the person before who simply did not know any better. But I couldn't and I didn't. Even in the moments when undeserved pain felt like a set back to progress and profound disappointment in certain others made me wonder if there really is a G-d, I trusted--
And I lived.
(to tell about it.)