Monday, August 13, 2007

Old City and Amichai

I’ve now visited the Old City around four times—depending on how I’m counting—and I can safely say that it is not the part of Jerusalem that moves me at all. It is full of too much history, too much kitsch, too much righteousness, too much anger, and too many tourists—of whom I was one.

One of my traveling companions (Steven, and that is his phrase, and a very civilized one at that) pointed out that it’s hard to live in a museum. That is what the Old City seems to be to me—a museum filled with many people laying their imagined dreams and meanings on real stones, but stones that are simply that. The Kotel simply makes me angry. The Haredi have taken it over and it is not a place for all Jews. Men and women did not used to be separated—that has only been true since 1961. Even in the past ten years, women have been restricted more and more from wearing tallits, from holding prayer groups. The women’s section is 1/3 or 1/4 the size of the men’s—and is hugely crowded as a result.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the expelling of most Jews from Israel, Jews reflected on why such a devastating event—it was an event that dwarfs the Shoah, perhaps. Many turned inward, towards the sins of the Jews. In the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b, it says that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred” of one Jew for another. Then there are all kinds of further discussions. But when I walk down the streets of the Old City, that is what I see—each Haredi sect setting itself above the other. And I do mean the Haredi sects—for the most part the varieties of other Jews are willing to live and let live.

Now, in fairness, when I have actually asked questions, I have been given a polite response (for example, the Hassid who explained why some mezuzahs are straight—they are Sephardic and there’s no symbolism; they just are prettier that way, fit the doorpost better—was perfectly polite to me). On the other hand, there is random rudeness—the black hats that just casually brush me off the street while studiously looking aside (I learned to walk with my elbows ready to use when they tried that); the elderly fellow who passed me on the street and lectured: “beged tsnu’a” (modest clothing—I was wearing jeans and short sleeves, not too immodest for Ben Yehuda Street!)—next time I see him, I ask: “Mi meit v’mashakh oto l’hiyot Elohim?” (who died and made you God?).

But that’s not all. There are the varieties of Christians eagerly pouring through the streets still looking for the symbolic piece of the true cross. There are Arabs—Christian and Muslim—blocking your path as you navigate from one street to another.

And every time I try to get anywhere I get lost—and when another of my traveling companions leads, they get lost too. So a lot of time is spent wandering down blind alleys that may be the rats’ revenge for experimental psychology.

However, after all these complaints, there were some pretty interesting things. There was the section of wall that has been uncovered that goes back to before Second Temple. It is in an unobtrusive spot along a path through the Old City. It isn’t that far from the Kotel and is completely deserted, to the point of having a crumpled cup tossed onto it. I see little difference between these and those ancient stones.

The Kohl archeological museum was a winner—the excavation of several destroyed houses from the Roman period.

Several Sephardic synagogues that have been rebuilt in the past fifty years.

And we wandered, while looking for the Jaffa Gate, into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That was quite the impressive place, the variety of churches that shared the space, the variety of Christian visitors, and the variety of decoration, mostly clashing.

While we were looking for the Jaffa Gate, it turned out that there was an “incident”: an Arab snatched the gun from a Yeshiva guard (apparently a particularly obnoxious Yeshiva, not that that makes a difference), shot him in the shoulder, then ran. He was pursued by others with guns and a regular Wild West shoot up took place. The Arab was killed and around eight others (probably tourists) injured. Yeah, and we missed it all (thankfully) because we were lost in the shuk.

Here is Yehuda Amichai on tourists in Israel. I should have just put this in instead of writing—he expressed my feelings so precisely:


Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall.

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb

And on the top of Ammunition Hill. They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms. Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed

my two heavy baskets at my side.
A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself :redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.

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