The air in Jerusalem is different. My daughter complained of a headache as our bus climbed toward the heart of the city, but I told her it was just the change in elevation. I did not tell her that the air is thicker in Jerusalem, not thicker with smog, but something else. “The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayer and dreams,” wrote Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. “Like the air over industrial cities. It’s hard to breathe.”
I walked the familiar streets, picking up threads of memories. I lived here twelve years ago as a student and a witness to a tiny slice of life in the city. I remembered my ulpan, or Hebrew immersion, teacher whose name was Neta, which means sapling in Hebrew. While I was training my tongue to speak a language that had atrophied in my family, Neta was training her left hand to write on the blackboard. Her right hand was badly injured by shrapnel in an explosion at the university cafeteria just weeks before and it hung limp in a sling.
I remembered Maya, whose little flower shop overflowed with fresh cut flowers before Shabbat. And Beni, whose vegetable stand was my go-to place as I carefully collected ingredients and agonized over recipe books during my first year of marriage. I remembered the thin frame of my Arabic teacher, Yael, who would stand in front of the class and make us mirror the muscle movements of her throat, as she made guttural sounds entirely foreign to her Anglo-speaking students. Peering into the stone walled houses, I wondered about the persistence of Jerusalemites who live here in face of myth and prophecy, despite war and promise, under the gaze of tourists, to the rhythm of hushed silence on Shabbat.
When I lived here, I had trouble with my eyes and was told to always wear sunglasses, as the city stones reflect too much sunlight burning the cornea. I wished there were sunglasses of a different kind, as the city can be too much for the mind if one is not accustomed to the intensity of it all. When you live here, you get used to the sounds of church bells and muezzin calls to prayer at the mosques, punctuated by constant car honking of impatient drivers.
This time, I returned to Jerusalem with new companions: my children, each with their own experience and a child’s-eye view. In the evenings, we went looking for food and would stop at the playground where Muslim children were having Iftaar, the fast-breaking meal after Ramadan. And Jewish children were looking to play after the long lull of Shabbat. Games formed quickly because kids, up to a certain age, have a language of their own and have no need for words or permission to touch.
My other companions were new friends from Atlanta, where they have been studying and preparing for this trip for a long time. They braved the heat and the slick cobblestones, trekking up to the old part of the city and down again with hearts wide open, listening. For many, this was a first encounter with the city, but they were not tourists. They came to claim a sense of belonging and leave a small print of their own story. They came to read from the Torah, affirming their place among the Jewish people and their responsibility in the world at large. And they came to remember.
On the way out of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial museum, I marveled at the words from Ezekiel 37:14 etched into the stone of the gates: “I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil…” It is impossible to describe the emotional impact of memorializing the devastation of the Jewish people, not as a whole, but as individuals. Yad Vashem is still searching for nearly two million individuals whose mention is missing from the Hall of Names. This year, I added the name of my great-great-grandfather, Fievel Eidelman, who was murdered at Babi Yar together with his wife and children. His name is the only name we remember.
We happened to be in Jerusalem the week of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the reunification of the city, when Jews were once again allowed to live here. Fifty years is a blink of an eye in the life of this ancient place, but it is a lifetime to our generation. We are still praying for peace. Not just peace between Jews and Arabs, but also peace among Jews whose vision about the future of our people is driven by hope and sacred ideals, yet fragmented and often dysfunctional. It is a place of our dreams.