JERSUALEM REVISISTED: – MY WINDING PATH TOWARD A MODEST OPTIMISM
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, May my right hand loose its cunning”
Here I am: Jerusalem in the spring of 2013. I have been nomadic for five years now, living out of a suitcase, traveling in accordance with my musical performances, across Canada and throughout Europe. I have meeting all sorts of people, gaining perspective, learning much about the world, not to mention myself. There is something wonderful about circling through places, leaving and returning again and again, each time with newfound perspective, each time feeling your old self and your new self merge. Sometimes it is joyful, sometimes full of sorrow, but always, it teaches you something. And now here I am on a visit back to the place I grew up in on and off as a child and in certain periods of my early adulthood.
Jerusualem. Where do I begin? How can I begin? In literary criticism, there is the concept of over-determination – a symbol that has so many layers of possible interpretation that it i’s too overwhelming for the reader, and is thereby rendered as if useless. That is how I feel whenever I approach Jerusalem in writing. Actually, that is how I feel when I approach Jerusalem with my heart, mind and soul:. Overwhelmed.
If I ever thought that it was simply my place of residence, it was foolish of me to think so, for every aspect of life here is affected by the fact that Jerusalem is, and has been for centuries, a potent symbol of so much, for so many. With that in mind, it is terrifying to share any thoughts about the place, when everyone has a strong opinion and wants to tell it to you, if not bark it. And so I beg you to understand: This is a personal, experiential reflection. The number of qualifications and caveats I would have to add as footnotes if this were political would make the following entirely unreadable.
For a long time, I have not known what to think about Jerusalem. When I moved from there to Canada as a child, I longed for it desperately. There, where I once played freely in the alleys, playgrounds and streets with friends, the smells of dry grass, pine cones, sand dust, the wonderful smells of familiar food wafting from different apartments, back then I knew little about Jerusalem’s potency beyond my sensual experience of it. From there to move at eight years old to Calgary where it was cold and where we had to be driven to friends’ houses to play, was a profound disappointment, a loss of freedom and childhood independence, not to mention the loss of more agreeable climate.
But even then I must have felt that it was the spirit of the place that I missed, the spirit that inhabited those senses. For in Calgary, too, there was the smell of grass and the odd pine cone, there were moments of deep spiritual existence from the eyes of a child underneath the blanket of the great cosmos. But unlike Jerusalem, there was no mythology attached to it, no repertoire of songs, stories and poems shared by its inhabitants, no suffering to make it soulful, nor collective narrative I felt a belonging to.
So intense was my longing for the place of my early childhood, , that when I finished high school I moved back to Jerusalem to do my undergraduate studies in literature, history and education. At eighteen years of age, I thrived at first, enthralled by my physical re-familiarization with the sights, smells and sounds, with the language rolling off my tongue, with the music, and the warm breeze. It was a time of newfound freedom and independence for me, having left home to discover myself in the excitement of university life. I was taking everything in and trying desperately to build an adult identity I could call my own, conflicted as it was. I was full of emotion, inexplicable tears, a sense of belonging that was not on the lines of nationalism or ideology, at least I did not think so. Nor did the sentiment rest on the wings of religion, but on the most basic of terms. My five senses just felt at home, a home I was happy to share in peace with whom ever else felt that way, regardless of political or social category.
But in my first year of teaching at a Jerusalem high school, everything changed dramatically. Political tension, part of every day life in the region, erupted to the point of affecting my day to day life gravely. And from the initial eruptions things only escalated. It started with shootings on certain roads, but quickly moved on to buses exploding in the streets, almost daily, in intersections my own bus route took to work. From buses the explosions spread to cafes, supermarkets, and night clubs. By then, in my second year as school teacher, I had over two hundred students I cared for and cared about, so it was not only concern for my own safety and that of my family that gripped me, but for my students as well. It was harrowing.
My supervisors at work told me we had to keep them calm and tell them to carry on as normal. I vehemently disagreed. What was normal about this? This was happening for a reason. Yes we were in danger and had to show a brave face, but this was the uprising of another people, and it was not enough to know we were filled with desperate dread and wanted to survive. I needed to better understand, though it seemed impossible, why a group of people would act with such total disregard for innocent civilian lives.
As the violence and nervous irritability grew around me, so my understanding of the context of my living space grew deeper. My thoughts spanned history, politics, culture, religion, psychology and spirituality, and inevitably dove from my narrative into a more complex pool of narratives. Meanwhile, I watched as my high school students turned their fear into anger. I could hardly blame them. Fifteen of their close friends had been killed in a downtown explosion. Those who did not die were in hospitals in comas, with nails in their heads, packed into the explosives so as to cause the most amount of damage. A month or two later, one of my favourite student’s mother and baby sister were killed in their home. I dutifully attended the unforgettable funeral.
I was sick with grief, and my students were blind with rage. But there was a core part of me that refused to agree to their hatred, because when they made their disdain for the enemy plain to me, in writing forcefully scratched onto their desks and scrawled on their exam papers, I knew that this was not and could not be the answer. Anger that stemmed from a deep and volatile wound could not be what healed it.
Through the daily dread and despair something turned within me. When I came home each day and turned on the news, by obligation, not by desire, the sounds of mothers weeping for their fallen sons and daughters triggered nightly weeping. But it struck me deeply that the sound of those wailing mothers was the exact same on both sides. On that level, it did not matter whose narrative you were going with, it was utterly devastating. Knowing that it was harder than ever to expect my students to transcend their pain beyond the immediate and understandably tribal, self-protective solidarity was also devastating.
I left Jerusalem at the end of the second year of violence. I could not stomach it, but moreover, I no longer knew how to belong to it. No part of the beauty I had loved my whole life seemed worth the price. Seeing the rage on all sides, I had no hope whatsoever of it resolving and I could no longer justify my existence there, I could no longer live it simply, denying it carried political presence.
Heartbroken, I moved to Montreal, and quickly discovered I could not escape my grief, for in Montreal, upon hearing my foreign name, everyone asked me where I was from, and as soon as I answered, never really wanting to, I was victim to an onslaught of their harsh opinion. My own was seldom asked of me.
I had all the markers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Nightmares of violence, disdain for crowds, jumping at loud noises, tears, and a sense of isolation, a feeling that nobody understood how I was feeling. I was caught between unacceptable options. If someone verbally attacked or slandered Israel, I felt the need to defend it, at least to nuance the argument, even though I myself critiqued it heavily. I grew so sick of other people bringing it up when I just wanted to ‘be’, I almost considered lying about my name. In fact, I did choose a different name for my artist self, as I delved into music more seriously.
I spent the next five years in Montreal, working on my Master’s thesis in theological studies, which, as a direct result of my experiences in Jerusalem, was on the topic of ethics and religion, begging for an emphasis on the openness to multiple narratives for the sake of peace. I continued to teach at an elementary school, and I began to thrive in my art of song-writing. But I was in exile. Like a messy break up, I was angry, hurt, lost and confused, and grieving.
Two years later I had the opportunity to go back for a conference, and though the nightmares tripled in frequency toward my departure, I knew I had to do it. Back in Jerusalem, mostly on obligatory guided tours offered by the conference, I think I did nothing but weep. Like a bereaved widow to a formerly abusive husband, I felt hopelessly entangled in anger, grief, and the acknowledgment of a former love and life. It was too much to bear and at trip’s end, I was relieved to set foot in safe Montreal, which I called my new Jerusalem. There was enough of a spirit lingering in Montreal, and it would suffice. Still, my nightmares continued. In them, I would be walking around in Jerusalem and enthralled to be there, only to realise I was lost, and in harm’s way. I would wake disheartened beyond words.
At thirty, with a second album in the works, positive reviews and radio play, my master’s thesis finished and defended, and my patience for a rigid educational system at its lowest, I took a leave of absence in order to finally give my artistic self its full due. And where did I go of all places, but to Berlin. Berlin, from where two of my grandparents escaped in the nick of time. There, whatever anger I had toward “my” “people’s” “wrongdoings” in Israel, was halted by the sight of a thousand plaques placed in the pavement where “my” “people” had been dragged out of their homes and sent off to their slaughter. It’s not that I did not know that history, it’s that being there and seeing its traces affected me deeper than I had anticipated. And perhaps it rebuilt a certain justification for “my” “people’s” need for a homeland.
But then, it did not undo or take over my sympathy for the “other” “people’s” needs. It just confused me more. I could hold multiple narratives in my hand and mind, juggle them and see each one’s validity, and yet they remained painfully irreconcilable. I was without hope. Concurrently, I was experiencing the same irreconcilability in my most important personal relationships. And so my sense of crisis deepened overall. I came out with my third album, called “Sadder Music,” and I wondered where I could go from there.
From Europe, geographically closer, I was compelled to visit my family in Jerusalem again. I did not weep again quite as immediately, but I was still extremely tense. It was like everything I believed in was being tested, and moreover, the question of where I belonged seemed further and farther from my grasp. I felt like an alien in Israel now, out of touch and so far from having a firm position or understanding, so confused by the continuous criticism of my non-Israeli friends: some legitimate, some slanderous and fraught with ignorance of the history, so overwhelmed by the diversity of opinions within Israel, all spoken with fervour and urgency. My head was spinning with anxiety and grief. And yet my heart still sparkled when I took solitary walks in my old neighbourhood. It still melted at the sounds and scents. I could not cut it off from myself, nor myself from it.
And then I remembered the phrase: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, May my right hand loose its cunning.” And I remembered that when I left Jerusalem in my youth, I had a necklace with those words on it. I wrote that memory down in my notebook, and doing the only thing I know how to do when I swell up with more thoughts and feelings than I can keep in, I wrote a song. But fearing as I always do, to disclose anything about me and Jerusalem, I wrote Jane, instead of Jerusalem:
I wore a chain around my neck,
With your name on it so I wouldn’t forget,
Then I took it off and I locked it away,
I could never explain my regret
For having loved you so,
Who was I to think I know,
And who are you to be fought over so?
Jane, Jane, it’s not that I’ve come to complain,
But love you or leave you it’s always the same,
Jane, you drive me insane…..
Indeed. A love I could not shake. I returned to Europe, by then having given up on an apartment, and having no direction whatsoever but to follow the muse of my heart, I took a Buddhist-like leap, gave up whatever possessions I had left, and slept by the mercy of kind hosts who believed enough in my art and music as to feed and shelter me as I passed through their town. I pursued performances and by the grace of something that was surely bigger than me, was never shy of a safe haven. Therein perhaps lay my most profound transition.
Having essentially given up on political resolution, I now experienced reality not through the lens of academia, nor the educational institution, nor the regular day-to-day of regular work in one place. Now I was experiencing first hand different households, couples and families, in Canada as well as in Europe. And this is where my darkness turned to light.
What struck me most in these experiences was the generosity and good will of people wherever I went. What inspired me was the commonality of some essential human love, an appreciation for art and passion. What comforted me was that love was everywhere, with all its little deformities, in several versions, with various challenges, but it was everywhere. And where the structures of society seemed doomed to collapse everywhere I went, a small but persistent hope started to glow a little brighter.
Everywhere I went I learned of local grass-roots organizations that functioned on altruism, and made up for the lack of benevolence and compassion in greater institutions. Everywhere I went I heard the art and poetry of people who believed in peace and uninhibited creative expression. By the same token, everywhere I went, people suffered similar sufferings, and it was strangely comforting. And slowly, as I kept on traveling, I began to feel better. Critical thinkers were everywhere, sharing their ideas, breaking down barriers imposed from the outside, reaching from genuine hearts to other genuine hearts. I continued to weep, but more for comfort than for misery.
And now, in my fifth year of life as a troubadour, I am back in Jerusalem for another visit. And it’s not that I tune out the political news, but I can hold it in one hand and still see, feel and remember that here too, though you never see it in the news abroad, there are many people working at a grass-roots level toward peace. Groups of youth from both sides are brought together. Documentaries are being made to bring the legitimacy of multiple narratives to mind. Songs and poems that transcend political boundaries see publication. Jewish men get up to let an Arab lady with heavy shopping bags sit. Political and social satire breaks the tension with laughter. There is life here that is not altogether grim, or at least, there is joy still to be found within the grimness.
And the grass still smells as it always did. The olive trees still stand, twisted with poetic trunks, the birds still sing sweet songs. Jerusalem in all its humble beauty exists with and in spite of all its weight. And I can love it once again because I have fallen in love with everywhere, and so how can I exclude it - my original favourite, the place of my childhood? Good people, peace-loving people live here, and will continue to live here come what may. If I am citizen of the world, as my friends have come to call me, surely I can be at home once again here too.
Will I ever return for good? God only knows what twists and turns my journey will still take. But the grief I have felt for so long has shifted its emphasis. And for that I am entirely indebted to the good hearted souls whom I have met from near and far, who have reminded me not to reside only in fear, that people can and should belong everywhere, and that plenty of people believe that. If that is so, then why not Jerusalem?