I was recently in Israel on vacation. I spent most of that time playing like a happy child in the summery sandpit that is Tel Aviv. My parents live there, and I have many friends in and around the Tel Aviv area. I passed my days on the beach, going for long walks in the sunshine, and enjoying leisurely coffee catch-ups.
Tel Aviv always feels familiar and comfortable to me. To start with, everyone can pronounce my name. This is always a welcome treat given that I have lived my whole life in places where both my first and family names are constantly mispronounced.
Also, in a slightly odd kind of way, Tel Aviv reminds me of Sydney in Australia, where I grew up. Like Sydney, Tel Aviv is defined by its beaches – packed for eight months of the year with sun-worshippers of all shapes and sizes. Like Sydney, Tel Aviv’s culture is an outdoorsy one – people spend their time in parks, walking along the seashore, and arguing loudly in the open-air cafes on every street corner. Like in Sydney, Tel Aviv’s people are an eclectic, multi-cultural mix from every corner of the globe; very few buildings are older than 100 years; streets are narrow and crowded and chaotic. I could go on.
But the aspect of Tel Aviv that I personally find most appealing is its unique fusion of modern Jewish identity and secularism. No matter where one sits on the spectrum of religious belief and cultural identity, in Tel Aviv you will fit in just fine – there are others just like you, and even if there aren’t you can make up your own identity as you go, and no-one will think anything of it.
A lunch with some friends at a trendy grill restaurant in central Tel Aviv was a delicious case in point. We ate charred eggplants, chopped salad, humus and tahini. These modern Israeli staples wereaccompanied by a spread of what can only be described as the world’s least kosher foods: skewers of grilled shrimp, heaped platters of baby octopus and fried calamari rings, beef carpaccio with fresh parmesan cheese shavings. Even thinly sliced jamon Iberico was on offer.
It therefore seemed a bit bizarre, to say the least, when our waitress plonked a basket of matzoh in the middle of the table. She must have seen the confused look on my face because without the slightest hint of irony she told me it was instead of bread, it being Passover, after all….
On one day of my visit, I decided to temporarily abandon the modern delights of Tel Aviv and accompany my father on a day-trip to Jerusalem. It was my first time there in many years. The plan was to visit relatives, catch up with an old friend, and go for a stroll through the Old City of Jerusalem, where we would pick up some knick-knacks in the Arab market and then visit the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall or, in Hebrew, the Kotel).
Although Jerusalem is less than 70 kilometres from Tel Aviv, It is like the two cities exist in different universes. Tel Aviv is young, vibrant, modern and thoroughly secular. Jerusalem by contrast is old, serious, conservative and deeply religious. I doubt there is anywhere else in the world where the difference in character between two neighbouring cities is any starker.
Glossy travel-brochures will tell you that Jerusalem is a fascinating place to visit, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and a place that has a 4,000 year story to tell. The centre-piece of Jerusalem is the Old City, a mishmash of homes, markets, and religious sites, completely surrounded by ancient walls, the whole built entirely of pale golden Jerusalem stone. In the Old City’s Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Arab quarters the modern era co-exists alongside remnants from Ottoman, Crusader, Byzantine and pre-Christian times.
Indeed, the whole of Jerusalem is so thoroughly steeped in religion, history and conflict, that around any corner you are liable to bump into something you instantly recognise – be it from a Bible story, school history lessons or the evening news. Almost every pebble in the city is of interest to someone, somewhere. Sights that in any other place would be major draw-cards languish in obscurity, so overwhelming is the competition for the tourist eyeball.
Not to mention Jerusalem’s truly remarkable mix of people. The city’s permanent population of now almost one million comprises ultra-orthodox Jews of all sorts, Arabs, secular Jews who have made Jerusalem their home, and a jumble of government workers, diplomats, NGO types, and students in the many universities, colleges and religious seminaries. Add to this a massive visitor presence all year round: Christian pilgrim groups from around the world, daily busloads of overweight American Jews on tour, school children on field trips, and brigades of baby-faced soldiers toting M16s, quietly standing guard. It is a complex, engrossing stew of humanity.
For me, however, Jerusalem also happens to be where my grandparents settled in the early 1950s as refugees from Morocco and where my father grew up. It is a place my father and uncles fought in, and almost died in, during the 1967 war; it is where my parents got married; it is where most of my paternal family still live. And by the by, it is where I was born.
So as my father and I drove from Tel Aviv into the Jerusalem hills, I did not feel like a typical tourist on my way to see Jerusalem’s many landmarks. Nor, however, did I in any way feel like a local. Instead, I felt a sense of acute dislocation: like after a very long time away I was going “home” to where it all began for me, but to a place which I am not at all a part of, which I have never been a part of, and where I am more or less a complete stranger. Basically, Jerusalem as a place and as a concept is all very confusing for me, and that is probably why I had avoided visiting there for so long.
Which brings me to the point of this story: Jerusalem is without doubt one of those rare places in the world that can well and truly screw with your mind if you let it. No-where is this more so than around the Temple Mount in the Old City, where within five hundred metres you will find the Kotel (last remnant of the 2nd century Jewish Temple, and thus the most holy place in the world to Jews), the Dome of the Rock (where Mohamed ascended to heaven and thus third most holy site in the world for Muslims) and just down the Via Doloroso, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ, and thus understandably sacred to Christians).
Believers of all religions consider that the general vicinity of the Western Wall is the spiritual centre of the universe, with an atmosphere so cosmically charged that special channels of communication to the Almighty are open only there. In the Old City of Jerusalem, God is on speed-dial, if you will.
Now if you think I am exaggerating to make my point, consider the case of the Jerusalem Syndrome – a medically documented phenomena where hitherto completely normal people literally become psychotic with religious delusions on arrival in Jerusalem. Between 50 and 100 tourists each year are admitted to psychiatric facilities in Jerusalem suffering from this syndrome. Easter, Passover, and Christmas are the peak nutcase seasons.
Not convinced? Here are some true stories:
- A man from the United States was found wandering the Old City wearing a white robe and claiming to be Paul the Apostle.
- Another American man, utterly convinced that he was Samson, was detained after losing his temper when his attempts to move the Western Wall proved unsuccessful.
- Yet another American man, on orders from above, almost killed himself as he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in his Old City youth hostel.
- A middle-aged British man was admitted for treatment after walking the streets proclaiming to all and sundry the Messiah’s coming – that is to say, his own.
- A European man in his mid-30s was rescued, near dead from dehydration, after wandering the Judean desert, exactly as he had been commanded to do by “the angels”.
- A Danish teacher, convinced that Jerusalem was the only place in the world where he could talk directly with Jesus, claimed to see the Virgin Mary sitting on the roof of a mosque. Harmless, until he wound up in a fist fight with the mosque’s guards who had tried to prevent him scaling the roof to sit and chat with her.
- Perhaps who he actually saw was the woman taken into psychiatric care believing she was herself the Virgin Mary. She caused a major disturbance in nearby Bethlehem as she frantically searched for, but was unable to find, her lost child. Not at all surprising given that the child in question was none other than the baby Jesus, who by all accounts was last seen in Bethlehem circa 2,000 years ago.
The truly startling thing is that less than half of these people were nut-jobs before their visit to Jerusalem. That is to say, the Jerusalem Syndrome struck otherwise perfectly sane people inexplicably and without warning. Many patients fully recover once they are physically removed from Jerusalem. It is like there is something in the Jerusalem air that promotes this crazed behaviour, and once removed from it, they can go back to leading totally normal lives, as if nothing had happened.
A psychiatrist at Jerusalem’s K’far Shaul Mental Hospital, who treats a good number of Jerusalem Syndrome patients, explains that many later say: “I feel like a clown, and they cannot quite explain how they came to jump into a pond in the city park or sing hymns in the middle of the night from the top of the Old City ramparts”.
So trust me when I say that Jerusalem is a mind-fuck of a place, especially if you are in an emotional state that supports being mind-fucked, which of late would be a pretty accurate description of me.
Yet here I was, on a sunny mid-April day at the very peak of both the Easter and Passover holiday periods, tentatively approaching the Western Wall, world epicentre for getting mind-fucked. What was I thinking? I was half expecting to start hearing voices in my head, or at the very least feel a powerful urge to swap my sneakers for strappy leather sandals and begin chanting deliriously.
The plaza in front of the wall was jam-packed with holiday worshippers. My father, who it appears has become an armchair expert on identifying different Jewish sects, provided a running commentary.
“See that group of guys with the hats and black suits who look like they should have starring roles in the Sopranos? They are Chabad Hasidim you’d be most familiar with from Australia and New York, but don’t confuse them with those other guys who are dressed the same but are wearing slightly rounder fedoras – they are a completely different breed altogether. See that group of men in open necked shirts dancing and banging drums, and the women whooping it up around them in the revealing sundresses but strangely wearing hats to preserve their “modesty”? Definitely French Jews of North African origin celebrating a bar-mitzvah – as you can see, the women have adopted Parisian attitudes in their dress sense. See over there the 20-somethings in the knitted kippahs [skullcaps] singing ecstatically with their eyes closed? Those are the militant settler guys from the news, who sleep with a gun and a bible next to their pillow. Notice that curious looking fellow with the fur hat, black coat and white stockings? He is from a group that believes the modern state of Israel should cease to exist – violently if necessary – until the coming of the Jewish Messiah, and that a woman should be stoned for showing her elbows in public. He quite literally would spit on you in disgust if he knew about the meal you ate yesterday in Tel Aviv. Now see the guys next to him, who look exactly the same except that their coats are off-white, not black – well, those guys are really extreme in their beliefs……”
While my father talked, we pushed our way through the crowds thronging the open air plaza, and made our way into the segregated men-only prayer section. Then as we got within a few feet of the Western Wall, I followed my father through a high arched doorway, known as Wilson’s Arch, on the left. We entered into a cool, immense stone-cavern of sorts, which was apparently extensively renovated only in the last decade, so I hadn’t been in it before.
It took me a few minutes, coming from the glaring sunlight, to adjust to the dim lighting. Inside, the Western Wall continued to run along the entire length of one side of the cavern. A vaulted ceiling was about ten metres above us, making us feel small and humble. It was even more jam-packed with worshippers in here than outside, and the collective voices of all those praying echoed and reverberated off the walls, creating a melodic, almost hypnotic hum.
My father told me that whenever he visited Jerusalem he would come to this amazing place, pull up a chair, and just watch, sometimes for hours. No matter what your beliefs, you can’t help but be touched by the raw spirituality on display.
So my father and I sat in the cool, dimly lit cavern besides the Wailing Wall for a long time. We watched quietly as men of all ages, wrapped in prayer shawls, swayed backwards and forwards as if in a trance, touching and kissing the stones of the wall, all the while loudly and very publicly calling out to God to hear their prayers.
And then my father leaned over and told me a joke.
“A son asks his father to give him $1,000, being the donation required to secure an audience with a famous Rabbi. His father gives him the money. The next day, when the son returns from visiting the famous Rabbi, his father asks: “so, what did the Rabbi tell you?” His son replies: “He told me that there is a God”. His father is furious. “You paid $1,000 to be told that there is a God? I could have told you the same thing for free”. To which his son replies: “Yes, but the Rabbi actually believes it”.
That summed up perfectly all that niggles at me about Jerusalem. It is why I feel comfortable in Tel Aviv, and why I feel so dislocated in the midst of all the faithful that congregate around the Western Wall and Jerusalem’s other holy sites. It is because unlike me, these people truly and wholeheartedly believe. They believe without a shred of doubt. They believe that there is an Almighty who is listening to them when they pray; they believe that there is more to come after their current earthly existence ends; they believe that God has provided them with a convenient manual as to how to live their lives. Most of all, they believe utterly in the rightness of their belief, and they are even willing to die for these beliefs.
We left Jerusalem and returned to Tel Aviv later that afternoon. I was feeling contemplative and a little mixed up. Encounters with unadulterated blind faith of any sort can be inspiring, but also more than just a tiny bit terrifying.
Featured Writer: Eytan Uliel – The Road Warrior