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Jerusalem : Compass of the Diaspora Jew

Jerusalem : Compass of the Diaspora Jew

Somehow we always know how to seek Jerusalem, whether it's by Babylon's rivers or the Hudson.


We're standing in downtown Manhattan, overlooking Liberty Harbor. The woman standing next to me points to the view: "Doesn't it almost look like Jerusalem? That terrace over there and that tree? The way the sun is setting?"

I gaze for a minute at the view. We stand overlooking a dark Hudson River, a boat passing by, the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

No, it doesn't look like Jerusalem in the least. This is most certainly New York. I muster a smile, trying to think of an agreeable response until I finally sigh and admit, "No, it doesn't look like Jerusalem. Not at all."

She's not happy with my answer. She's fresh off a spring break Birthright trip and probably still seeking Jerusalem.

I've learned to nod politely in these moments. I understand her. It's like stepping off a plane in JFK, catching a waft of spices and still smelling Jerusalem.

Somehow we always know how to seek Jerusalem, wherever we are: whether it's by Babylon's rivers or the Hudson. It's some kind of inner compass which directs us there – not just for times of prayer, but in everything, on our living room walls and our silk paintings, in our wedding invitation calligraphy, our whispered consolations to mourners.

Even in the Soviet Union. My mother tells me about her childhood in the far north of Russia, the wait for exit visas in the '70s. She tells me of dark winter nights, secret copies of Exodus, gatherings with fellow Traitors of the State and political activists. Jerusalem: it was the magical formula whispered between activists.

"Soon, we'll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café," Mark Morozov, one of the activists, said upon farewell, as my mother's family gathered to emigrate. A Jerusalem café – what does a Moscow Jew know about a café in the Middle East?

The idea of Jerusalem is ingrained in the subconscious of the Diaspora Jew, arguably a different image than the one preserved by the Israeli. A place, yes, but also a reality, an ideal to constantly face and strive towards. It's become the perfect metaphor for all of Israel, and even for Jewish identity itself: a complicated place of winding streets, hills and valleys, divided, beautiful and tense. A fusion of east and west, ancient and modern, "always of two." As Yehuda Amichai notes in his poetry: It is at once an object of fantasy and also entirely mundane.

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And often, it is the ordinary which penetrates the Diaspora Jew. It's not just praying by the Western Wall or wandering the Old City, but it's also about that bus ride you take and the kind old man who blesses you and hands you a bag of fresh lychees. Is it naive, perhaps, that I melt a little, every time I walk by children playing in the city's streets? That I can spend months in that place, and still shake my head in disbelief over the miracles that took place there? Is it possible to yearn for the place in which one already stands?

Some Israelis laugh when they watch us grow misty-eyed: "You're impassioned with this place, aren't you?" They tolerate it, wonder at our shameless romanticism, smile at our naiveté.

But I've come to be proud of my naiveté. It's that same idealism of standing by the Hudson and seeing Jerusalem somewhere in the distance, the same fervor of the early pioneers and their ruthless conviction, the same whispered Soviet conversations.

Soon, we'll be sipping coffee together in a Jerusalem café. That activist, who had promised to meet my family in Jerusalem, died in a Soviet prison seven years afterwards. My mother's family settled in Brooklyn. But the stories of those wintry nights, of waiting for an exit visa, remain strong. We're still seeking, straining, to see Jerusalem from afar.

This Jerusalem Day I am reaffirming my conviction to return, if for no other reason than to sit in that Jerusalem café, for the sake of those who couldn't.

May 20, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Bernard Roth, May 22, 2012 6:43 PM

You have expressed my sentiments exactly. There truly is no other place like Yerushalayim anywhere else. Except perhaps Gan Eden.

(6) Ken Herman, May 20, 2012 9:28 PM

Deep down

On my first visit to Jerusalem in 1978 I a secular Jew repeated the old pledge at the wall. "may my right hand lose its cunning before I forget thee o Jerusalem" a spontaneous and instinctive action.

(5) Adam G, May 20, 2012 8:12 PM

Stop fanticizing and strive for reality

I read this while in Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalyim. No! Jerusalem isn't everywhere and Israel isn't a state of mind. It's real and waiting as the inheritance of the Jewish people. For too long in our history we pinned over the unattainable Jerusalem. Such pinning today is wasted. Hashem heard our prayers and delivered Israel to us. The time for pinning is over and the time for living and building is here. Don't spend water on tears, convert it into sweat of real labour.

(4) SusanE, May 20, 2012 6:37 PM

I Can Attest to That

Thank you for the article today. I'm from a small working class town that was populated by immigrants. I too had a longing to be in the places of my ancestors. After I went to Europe, in the rural parts of Germany and Italy and France, I can see here in America 150 years later, the ways in which my family had kept close to their ancestors ways. Most of this generation have never been to the countries of their ancestors but still have that culture and lifestyle especially the Italian, Irish and German families. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Many Jews settled in New York, and I imagine they brought much of their culture and lifestyle with them. I can understand why it would seem familiar to that woman standing beside you in Manhattan. ~~~~~~~~ Where we come from doesn't change and our surroundings reflect that.

(3) ruth housman, May 20, 2012 4:26 PM

coming to the WALL

I believe all roads, in deep ways, lead to Jerusalem, City of Gold, City of God, and our stories tell us of this deep and constant yearning. But in such perception, I also see a deep Unity of all life, meaning wherever I am, it could be said, I am in Jerusalem. And so my words reverberate what is written about New York by the writer's friend in this article. Yes, I do see it. And I do see all our desert years, as surely we all have them, as a walk through the Exodus story, and the deep and ongoing mirroring that does define all our lives, through such metaphoric and true connectivity can be perceived as beautiful, as opposites do all fold togehter, as the word cleave itself involves a cutting and also a strong glue, that binds. Life is so bipolar and words do reflect this totally. For those who do not get to Israel, who do not get to the Wailing Wall to pray, to wail against injustice of all kinds, it could be said, they do get to Israel and to Jerusalem, because it could also be said, Israel is a "state' of mind.

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