A Student of Jerusalem

“There are places in Jerusalem that I recognize and know so well, but when I do chance upon one of them it’s as if I’d never seen the place before. While on the other hand there are places in Jerusalem that I’ve never been to in my entire life, but when I go to one of them, it’s as if I’m able to immediately recognize them and have always known them. The result, however, of these many meanderings of mine through the streets of Jerusalem both day and night has been that I never really found the time to learn a trade in life.  And what’s worse is that I neglected the study of Torah. When a Jew doesn’t engage in the study of Torah, his conscience constantly reproves him saying: So what will you answer on Judgment Day when they ask you “Did you occupy yourself in the study of Torah during your lifetime?” What indeed will I answer them?- I will proudly respond: “I was occupied with Jerusalem” and I’m sure they’ll commend me saying “Well done!” – Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, Within the City Walls, page 9.

We studied these words, American and Israeli rabbinical students, sitting right above the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza on one of our weekly class tours. While the duration of the conversation was devoted to ancient texts related to the destroyed Temple, the Kotel, and the Shekhina (the Godly presence) that is said to dwell there constantly, I was fixated on these modern words, written by one of Israel’s most famous and influential authors. I found so many truths in his statements- I too have walked the streets of Jerusalem, discovered something entirely new and nearly unrecognizable on a street I traverse daily, I have been to sites for the first time, certain that I must have spent significant time there in the past. Much of my experience here is occupying myself with Jerusalem: my home, my capital, my Beit Midrash (house of study), and a constant source of conflicting emotions, all underlied with love.My parents, teachers, and administrators will breathe a sigh of relief when I say that this preoccupation with Jerusalem has not prevented me from studying Torah- don’t worry, Gramma, I am doing my homework and studying for exams- but this Torah study would be incomplete if I valued the classrooms in the Mechon Schechter building above the limestone-dotted, hilly classroom that surrounds me constantly.

Thankfully, we’ve had many organized opportunities to learn about our surroundings. We have gone to a different holy site each week on our class on Jerusalem as Home to the Three Monotheistic Faiths. Through our experiential program we have met with Muslim students in nearby Abu Ghosh, various Christian leaders in the Old City, and other political, social, and religious leaders. By paying attention to posters and Facebook posts, I have encountered events protesting discrimination against women, Ethiopians, Arabs, and the list goes on. Jerusalem is in many ways a microcosm for the rest of Israel and the Jewish experience at large, and in many ways feels like another planet. It seems that every idea, cause, issue, and conflict that happens anywhere in the country comes to a head here. Or maybe, I just need to get out more- thank goodness we have semester break coming up next month!

Israeli singer Achinoam Nini at a concert to protest the silencing of women. The poster behind her reads "Sing for Equality: They Won't Silence Us"

Probably the most significant experiences I have had in the greater Jerusalem area over the last few weeks deal with a different sense of the word “occupation.” Just outside of Jerusalem (and most would argue within the city as well) is a vast area of land that represents many different things to many different people. I am of course talking about the West Bank (an area with many names according to each of these different people). I consider myself incredibly lucky to have participated in two trips to the West Bank on two consecutive Thursdays.

The first was a tour lead by a American Olah (immigrant) who is now a resident of the large settlement of Efrat. We started the day at Herodion, Herod’s man-made fortress which is now a fascinating archaeological park, and continued on to an illegal outpost to hear from a settler there, to a bakery in the largely Americanized settlement of Neve Daniel, to Kfar Etzion to learn about the massacre there in 1948, to the “pinah chamah” (literally “warm corner”) to deliver baked goods to soldiers relaxing off-duty, and finally to lunch and an overlook in Efrat.

View from Herodion of various Jewish and Palestinian homes

The second trip was run by Encounter, and involved two days of traveling in the Bethlehem area, meeting and hearing from Palestinians. We met peacemakers, businessmen, farmers, teachers, parents, and students and heard their stories. We walked along the separation barrier and all of the international graffiti messages drawn on it. We ate in a restaurant, met in hotels, and stayed over in people’s homes. My host family was a wonderful three-generation Palestinian Christian family in one multi-story house who opened up their beautiful home to four of us, providing tea, an excellent breakfast spread, and an openness to sharing their experiences and beliefs. At the end of the trip, on our way back into Jerusalem we walked through a checkpoint.

It took me several days to sort through all of the impressions, thoughts, and issues that these trips raised (and I’m still not done). It was fascinating to be in the same area twice and have it look so different on each trip. While I’m not sure I can definitively express my political views on what should happen in this region, especially as they shift slightly with each new story or piece of information that I hear or see, I can say that these two trips grounded the conflict here for me. I gained a sense of just how intense and deep the emotions are on all sides when it comes to this land, and the various peoples who feel inextricably tied to it. I feet despair and hopelessness that this conflict will never be resolved, and simultaneous joy and optimism at the incredible work that those committed to resolution and peace are doing. Even more, I returned from these trips with a renewed passion for and commitment to Israel as my homeland and as a place where I want to work to see dreams realized and potential actualized.

Artists from all over the world have come to try to beautify the walls of this conflict:

At the cement wall surrounding the "Pinah Chama"

The Separation Barrier surrounding Bethlehem

I now understand that saying “it’s complicated here” is more than just an excuse to avoid delving into deeper conversation- it’s simply the truth. As people on all sides work to strip away these layers of complexity (even while others try to add more), I’ll do my part and just keep sharing the stories:

Of Omar, a farmer in Al Walaje village, for whom the IDF is building a tunnel so that he can access the rest of his village that will soon be on the other side of the separation barrier.

Of the fighters of Kfar Etzion, who weathered massacres and ambushes as they defended the road into Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence.

Of  Ali Abu Awad, a former militant activist who was active in both Intifadas, and after losing his brother in this war and is now fighting for peace

Of the Jewish mothers who keep the “pina chama” fully stocked with fresh baked goods for soldiers to relax on duty, treating them as their own children.

Of the people on all sides who care deeply for their land and their fellow human beings, find justification for their their decisions through their faiths and traditions, and are just ready for  peace, in however many states it will take.

Omar's Tunnel

I’m grateful that I’ve heard all of these stories and more, and hope to add to my collection throughout the rest of this year. Stories are meant to be heard and stories and meant to be told and retold.

As you can tell, being occupied with Jerusalem and its environs can be exhausting, and I’m just a simple rabbinical student who can escape from it when I want. And escape I do. The last few weeks have been filled with many friends visiting from the states. Shout-outs to all of my friends from home, college, camp, JTS, and other facets of my life who came and had dinner, stayed with me, shared Shabbat with me, did laundry, and otherwise helped convert my apartment into a hostel. And a special shout-out to Becky for putting up with it.

The next few weeks will have a different, less-fun sort of escape- finals. Though I definitely do not look forward to the paper-writing and studying for exams, I do think it will be satisfying to reflect on what I’ve learned this year and how my Hebrew abilities have grown. Thankfully, we are allowed to write our papers in English. After exams, we have a few weeks off before beginning our Spring Semester at the end of February.

How Sarit and I "occupied" ourselves one day waiting for class to start

So it’s time to get back to studying: from books, from notes, from people, from landscapes, from maps, from the food I eat, and from the air I breathe. And once I am done occupying myself with passing my classes, I will go back to occupying myself with this fascinating city in this equally fascinating country.

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